Saturday, April 30, 2011

April 30 - James Walsh, Missionary, Bishop, Prisoner

She was furious with the boy but she had to admit that she should have seen it coming. James Walsh and his brother were intelligent and clever and she should have known that this wasn't a battle she wanted to fight. Yet, she had decided to call their bluff when they claimed to be able to recite their lesson while standing on their heads. Now, she had no doubt that they understood the lesson perfectly well and would be able to utilize what they had learned and apply it to their studies. But, James and his brother seemed so confident that she found it hard to resist to put them to a challenge she felt them unequal to. She doubted they could even stand on their heads, let alone recite the entirety of their lesson in front of the class. Surely they would laugh or forget some important part and when they did she would win this battle of wills and claim her victor's prize of their silence and obedience for a little while longer. But, then James and his brother had turned themselves upside down--as if they anticipated she would take them up on it--and began with the opening words of the lesson. She followed along as they recited it word for word and her confidence turned first to surprise and then to anger with each correct word. They returned to their seats after doing exactly as they claimed they could and were excused from doing the work that they had not wanted to do on account of their clear understanding of the lesson. At the insistence of the teacher, their father soon transferred them to a Roman Catholic parochial school.

Hearing the stories and feats of missionaries always seemed to make James' heart sing. He imagined himself living into these stories and he found that they resonated deeply within his mind and soul as he learned to value what missionaries value: a felt and met need. As he grew older he eventually took a job as a timekeeper in a steel mill. This job helped him meet his needs and allowed him some comfort but it was not what he felt called to do. Eventually, he followed his dream and entered the seminary and Maryknoll brotherhood so that he might become first a priest and then a missionary. He wrote that the calling of a missionary was an odd one because they were called "to go to a place where [they are] not wanted, but needed, and to remain until [they are] not needed but wanted." James was sent with three other missionary priests to China. He became the Superior of the order in China and eventually was appointed bishop of Kongmoon where they were. He was happy in China and found great joy and peace in serving the priests there as a supervisor and pastoring bishop. But in 1936 he was called back to Maryknoll, New York, to become the second Superior General of the Maryknoll order.

While he led the Maryknoll order he expanded their missionary efforts to include Central America and Africa. It was clear to any that knew him that James' passion was with those who had an unrecognized need to hear the Gospel message he and his brothers and sisters in the faith carried with them. After his term as Superior General he answered a call to go back to China. When he returned, though, in 1949 China was very much a different country than when he had left and the communists had taken power. It was harder to speak openly and they were indirectly opposed by the government at every turn. That is to say, until 1951 when James' group was outlawed and the missionaries were told to go home. James refused to go--even when asked to do so by his superior--and was arrested. He wrote to the Vatican: "To put up with a little inconvenience at my age is nothing. Besides, I am a little sick and tired of being pushed around on account of my religion." He was sentenced to serve twenty years in jail and during this time he was forbidden visits from anyone he knew except for one visit from his brother who was the Attorney General of the State of Maryland. After twelve years of confinement, he was released and he walked alone across the bridge into Hong Kong where he was greeted warmly. He would live another eleven years in which he would spread his love of mission work and continue to advocate for Chinese Christians even while far away from them.

Friday, April 29, 2011

April 29 - Catherine of Siena, Mystic, Monastic, Betrothed to Christ

The boy was talking very fast and trying his hardest to impress his six-year-old sister Catherine. He knew it was his job and duty to not only take care of her but to entertain her as they walked back from the home of their older and married sister. Catherine was the youngest of twenty-five children since her twin had died shortly after birth and was a treasure to the family. So, he joked with her and told her stories so that the journey home might be a little easier on her. When he turned to see why she wasn't responding to his best jokes and funniest voices, he noticed that she was no longer walking beside him. Like a good brother, he was instantly terrified that he had lost his youngest sister. He began to look around frantically while yelling at himself for his negligence and carelessness. He was gripped by that horrible combination of certainty that she must be nearby and confidence that an awful mistake has been made that will exact a terrible cost. When he didn't see her in the immediate area he began to sprint back on the path they had been traveling. He finally found her standing in the middle of the road and staring up into the sky with tears streaming down her face.

He knew that those tears--probably tears of fear at being lost, he suspected--would purchase his punishment with their father and so he began to think of a way to dry them up along with any story Catherine might be tempted to tell before they got home again. He called her name sweetly but she didn't adjust her gaze away from the blank spot on which it was focused. He became frightened and called out to her louder and more harshly yet she still mouthed silent words with her eyes focused on some invisible subject. When he grasped her hand, she suddenly gasped and seemed ripped back into the world she shared with her family and the rest of humanity. Six-year-old Catherine began speaking of seeing the throne of Heaven with Jesus seated upon it. Around him were Peter, Paul, and John and they joined together with others in worship. The little girl who was nicknamed "Joy" by her family had been overwhelmed by the joy that radiated from the communion and unity of that glorious scene. Even telling it to her brother had an infectious nature and when they got home her family found this to be a miraculous vision of things unseen. This little girl would commit then and there to a life of devotion to the one who had inspired such joy and peace by his mere presence. She would go on to become a leader in the Dominican monastic movement among the devoted laity. Her appointment was not without controversy but it is undeniable that she was called to and suited for this position of service.

When she grew older she was pushed toward marriage by her family. They had raised her in the Faith that they professed alongside her but it seems that Catherine's childhood vision had faded in their minds over the years while it still burned white hot in her own. When they began to speak of marriage and betrothal, she took a shocking action and cut her long, beautiful, golden-brown hair to a strikingly short length. She was punished for this act and forced to do menial tasks around the home and denied the solitude and silence she craved so eagerly. Yet, it was through this punishment that she learned to find solitude within herself--deserts that could not be denied to her and always held the promise of the presence of God. Eventually, she had another vision wherein she was brought up to heaven by Jesus himself. Once there, she was betrothed to Jesus. He slipped a ring upon her finger to seal her as his and she was taken back to the world she knew and shared with her family. From that day onward she said she could always see the band upon her finger even as others claimed that nothing was there.

Catherine answered a calling to devote herself to her Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. In doing so she became an advocate of reformation within the Church that called clergy and leaders to hold themselves to a high standard even as they called others to join with them in this standard of excellence and service. She would write numerous letters and treatises on the mystical life of communion with Jesus and the way of love that she knew as the way of her Faith. She cared for the sick and the plague-stricken with her own hands and walked with many weeping and mourning families as they escorted their loved ones to the grave. The little girl who had been inspired by a vision of joy and communion spent her life on others in a way that brought this joy and communion a step closer in her own world.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

April 28 - Oskar Schindler, Businessman, Enemy of the Nazis, Righteous Among the Nations

Oskar Schindler had an eye for business even if he didn't seem to be all that gifted at maintaining businesses long term in challenging economies. So, when the Nazis breached the Polish defenses and began seizing the assets and valuables of the country, he recognized that there would most surely be opportunities to purchase and run successful business in Poland. Her purchased an enamelware factory in Krakow and quickly set out figuring how he might make it profitable and self-sustaining. The Nazis had a limited need for enamel in their war effort so Oskar wanted to hire workers as cheaply as he possibly could to insure profitability. His accountant--a German speaking Jew by the name of Itzhak Stern--convinced him to hire Jews who had been forced into labor camps as they would be cheap but able to do the work. Oskar took Itzhak's advice and soon he was in the business of enamel in Poland and employed over 1,000 Jews.

At first, he had hired the Jews because they would be cheap. Oskar bought into the Nazi lies that insisted the Jews were vile but his opinion was slowly being changed by regular interaction with them. He found that unlike what he had been told, his employees were good and decent people who seemed very much like himself. It was only after a little while that he began to defend them against raids, probes, and harassment. He turned the Gestapo aside and used his charm to convince others to overlook him and his little factory. When they came to take the children and handicapped, he insisted that they were highly skilled and essential workers who could not be taken if the factory was to survive. Since the factory had been labeled "important" to the Nazi war effort, Oskar's workers--often referred to as Schindlerjuden or "Schindler's Jews"--were allowed to remain under Oskar's watchful care. Oskar had found that he loved those who worked for him and could no longer believe the lies of the Nazis who had tried to make him hate people so that he might better obey their Imperial commands.

In 1942, Oskar had the painful experience of seeing the Nazis ply their trade in a ghetto in Krakow. The soldiers beat, humiliated, and dragged away the Jews that they could find. They were loaded onto trains and shipped to concentration camps where they would likely work until they died from hunger and exhaustion or until they were murdered for being Jewish and undesirable to those in power. After this, Oskar began using more and more of his money and charm to protect more and more Jews. He arranged for 700 Jews to be assigned to work in a nearby factory where he could keep his eye on their welfare. He began buying some of their possessions and valuables off of the black market so that they might not lose them forever. He bribed officials and powerful people so that those he protected might continue to be protected. In other words, Oskar sacrificed the values of good business and economics to care for the people he had learned to love and adore.

When the Soviets began to make progress against the Nazis and encroach upon their conquered territory, Oskar knew that soon his workers would be evacuated to concentration camps if the Nazis became nervous about their proximity to liberating Soviet forces. So, he made a request that he and his nearly 1,200 workers be shipped to another factory in Czechoslovakia where he might "better serve" the Nazi war effort. The factory he had purchased produced missile and hand grenades and his willingness to seemingly strengthen the Nazi army was smiled upon. He and his workers were shipped to the factory and began to produce missiles and hand grenades. Not a single one of the weapons they produced ever worked successfully, though. He had bought a factory that would ultimately cost him far much more money than it was worth but by this point he was far more concerned with those he loved and was protecting than he was for himself or his business ventures. He protected his workers at great cost to himself and the ruination of his own business and economic life. At the end of the war, he was nearly penniless because of his steadily increased devotion to the people God had called him to love.

Oskar tried many more business ventures over the course of his life but none were especially successful for any significant period of time. He had saved over 1,200 Jews from certain death because he knew that the Faith he professed called him to lay down his life for those he loved. He died in 1974 and is remembered as a great savior and protector of the Jews in Germany. He found a way to protect even those who were within the jaws of the Nazi war machine by laying down his present and his future so that they might live. He was declared one of the "Righteous Among the Nations" during his lifetime and is memorialized by a tree planted at the Yad Vashem in Israel.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

April 27 - Toyohiko Kagawa, Poet, Pacifist, Friend of the Poor

When Toyohiko Kagawa was asked to come and speak to the seminarians at Princeton--one of his alma maters--he went willingly and eagerly. Toyohiko had been displeased with much of his own seminary experience because he found that the students there were far more interested in arguments, rhetoric, persuasion, and the fine points of doctrine and textual study. He repeatedly begged them simply to live out what Jesus had taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. He knew he was asking for much of the seminarians but he hoped that they would--as far as people go--be the most likely to answer a call to genuinely and sincerely practiced allegiance to Jesus as Lord and Savior. When he finished speaking to the assembled Princetonians he accepted some questions and then dismissed them quietly and gathered his things from the podium. As he was doing so, two of the seminarians turned to each other in their seats and discussed his lecture.

One insisted that it had not been quite what they had expected from a man who was so well respected around the seminary. Turning to his friend, he quipped, "He didn't have much to say, did he?" They shared their own little laugh knowing that they were better educated than Toyohiko but not knowing that they were still fools. Both of them had heard of his background and how he had been the illegitimate child of a powerful Japanese man and a geisha. He was hated by his mother and liked by his father but soon both his mother and father had died and he was orphaned. He was given over as the ward of the widowed wife of his father. She and her mother struggled not to resent little Toyohiko because it had not been his decision to be a child of infidelity but they failed in their struggle and Toyohiko knew he was hated by them. They sent him away to a boarding school. He began attending a bible study given by a Christian minister so that he could learn and practice his English. Yet while he was learning the language, he was hearing and considering the truths and teachings of the Faith of the minister. When he was a teenager, he converted to the Christian Faith that had gripped him by the heart over a long time of reflection and meditation. Soon after this conversion he knew clearly that he would be a minister of the Gospel that had spoken to him when he had walked in darkness, desperation, and death.

Though they didn't seem to prize it, those two young seminarians knew that after receiving more education in preparation for the calling he was already living into, Toyohiko had stepped out in faith and moved into the Shinkawa district of Kobe. These slums were some of the worst--if not the absolute worst--in all of Japan. He lived in a three-walled dwelling so filthy and small (only six feet wide by six feet long) that it would be an overstatement to call it a shack. For nearly fifteen years he tended to the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying in Shinkawa. Toyohiko was able to make a little money (not nearly as much as he would have been able to if he had moved out of Shinkawa, though) but he spent it all on medicine, food, and clothing for those who came to him asking for it. He was regularly abused and beaten for his love and compassion. At one point, a band of thugs accosted him knowing him as an "easy mark" who would give over anything to them not out of fear but out of love. They demanded his clothing and mentioned that they knew he was a Christian. He took off his clothing and handed it over to the criminals and they walked away with filthy rags and an increasing awareness of the goodness of Toyohiko's God and their own inherent sinfulness shown by their willingness to beat and strip a poor and loving man in the slums.

Those two young seminarians probably had no idea that Toyohiko had spent nearly every night for nearly fifteen years tending for the sick and homeless in his own meager dwelling. He gave over his bed to the sick and filthy people he loved and slept in the cold with little to protect himself from the elements. He gave over his food and drink with such regularity that he was regularly ill from hunger. He did not have intense theological debates but he regularly lived out the teachings of Jesus in a way that granted him an inherent understanding of the Gospel that Jesus brought into this world. Every night for four years he held the hand of a murderer as that murderer drifted off into a fitful sleep in Toyohiko's own bed. The murderer could not bear what he had done any longer but Toyohiko still spoke of forgiveness to and refused to abandon the poor man who feared isolation and judgment. He organized workers in the slums and shipyards all while fighting for increased voting rights in Japan. Eventually, he was arrested and held in prison for two particular crimes: 1) he organized the voiceless so that they might speak in unison to those with power and be heard, and 2) he apologized to the Chinese for the Japanese occupation of portions of China. Toyohiko's commitment to peace--one he felt compulsory for all who hoped to follow Jesus even if it cost them their lives--made him a dangerous criminal in the eyes of Japan.

Perhaps the two young seminarians knew that a terrible earthquake hit Tokyo and Yokohama in 1923. The ruins of those cities were flooded with the sick, suffering, hungry, poor, and dying. The government was overwhelmed by the need and was uninitiated into taking care of its citizens since it had been so long practicing power and control and forsaking compassion and mercy. So they came to Toyohiko in prison and released him. They knew he had made a difference in the lives of those needing help and they also knew that it was Toyohiko who would be able to do it again. They made him Chief of Social Welfare and offered him a home and a sizable salary. He rejected them and insisted that he could neither help the poor from a position of comfort nor allow his Christian duty to be purchased. He slowly helped rebuild cities devastated by earthquake, neglect, and need. For this he was lauded and honored even as he insisted that he was only doing the bare minimum of what God had called him to do.

As the two seminarians continued to share their own criticism of Toyohiko they ignored that Toyohiko was struggling to see the steps he was trying to descend. He had acquired a serious eye disease because of his practices of offering hospitality even in the slums. Those he lived with were sick and soon so was Toyohiko. As the two men missed the point of all they had heard and continued to pass the drug of intelligent pride back and forth an elderly lady overheard them and interrupted them. She leaned forward to interject one simple sentence into their conversation while pointing at Toyohiko as he carefully descended the stairs: "You don't need to say much when you're hanging on a cross."

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

April 26 - Basil of Amasea and Glaphyra, Martyr and Near-Martyr, Bishop and Refugee

Glaphyra was the servant of the empress--Constantia--who was married to the emperor named Licinius. Licinius lusted for Glaphyra in such an obvious way that it was apparent even to his wife whom he hoped to hide it from. To be honest, this was surely not the first time that Constantia was faced with her husband's infidelity since he seemed to be accustomed to getting what he wanted from women whether they liked it or not. Glaphyra, however, was a Christian and had taken a vow of celibacy so that she might focus on devoting herself to service and her calling as a woman of God. Constantia knew that soon her husband would force Glaphyra to transgress her vow and ruin yet another young woman. So, she dressed Glaphyra in the clothing of one of her male servants and undertook careful measures to disguise Glaphyra in a way that would not attract Licinius' attention. Then, she gave her a large sum of money and sent her to Amasea where she might refuge with the Church there. Once Glaphyra was away Constantia conspired with her servants to deceive Licinius and tell him that Glaphyra was insane and on her deathbed.

Glaphyra was very frugal with the gift that Constantia had given her. In fact, she still possessed nearly all of it when she arrived in Amasea and was taken in by the bishop there. His name was Basil and he was committed to taking care of the people of God and those that God willed to pass through his life. He took Glaphyra in and found a home for her within the congregation. She found comfort and spiritual solace in Amasea under Basil's leadership. Eventually, she donated all of the gift she had received to build a meeting building for the congregation that had welcomed her as a refugee and exile. It wasn't nearly enough and so she sent a letter back to Constantia by secretive means asking for more support. Constantia was very willing to support the Church in Amasea and so she sent along the money and the building was finished. But as it was being finished Licinius stumbled upon the letter and was outraged. He was not furious because he could not have Glaphyra's body but because he had been deceived and outwitted. He was embarrassed and allowed his embarrassment to fuel a rage. He ordered the governor of Amasea to send Glaphyra and Basil to him so that he might punish them for their audacity. He complied because of his allegiance to Licinius but Glaphyra died before the journey could be made and was buried among the bones of the congregation she had been grafted into. She had found a home and a calling and rested peacefully knowing her life's journey was over.

Basil, however, was sent to Licinius--brought in chains--to pay for the heinous crime of taking in a lonely, refugee woman. Basil was found guilty of the charge of subverting the empire and being an enemy of the state. For the treason of loving those the emperor raged against he was beaten and tortured. Licinius thought that a promise of money and power would win Basil over and so he offered to make brave Basil into a pagan priest of his own personal religion. Licinius must have been even more enraged when Basil laughed at the idea and insisted that it was foolishness to trade faith for life. So, he was carried to the place where he would be made a martyr and he stopped to pray with some of the Christians who had come from Amasea to be with him. They were worried he wouldn't hold up to the emperor's worst intentions but they were comforted to watch him follow through in his commitment and mount the platform where his life would be stolen from him. He knelt down and looked up to his executioner. "Do what he wants you to do," Basil said, "it's alright." Having forgiven his killers, he died a martyr and an example of what it means to follow Jesus regardless of the cost.

Monday, April 25, 2011

April 25 - John Mark, Martyr, Disciple, Missionary

John Mark, better known now simply as Mark, was there that day in Cana when a wedding became not only a happy celebration of love and devotion but also the inauguration of an entirely new ministry by God almighty incarnate in one single, mortal, human being. Mark was among the servants who were tending the celebration and keeping its embers of joy stoked and glowing. But there was a problem--they were out of wine. Maybe there had been a miscalculation or maybe the servants had overestimated how much wine they had left as they freely poured it out into the cups of the guests. Maybe the guests were so jubilant that they were simply drinking more than had been expected. Regardless, the servants knew this was a big problem and they were hastily conferring over it in the kind of whispered voices that do the exact opposite of what a whisper is supposed to do. Mary overheard their frenzy and smiled serenely because she knew what to do. She brought her son Jesus--Mark had heard quite a bit about this one already and much of it was hard to believe--and conferred to him quietly about the problem. At first he seemed distressed by her request but then he seemed to acquiesce to his dear mother's pleas. She turned to Mark and the other servants and said, "Trust him and do whatever he tells you to do. No matter what."

Mark watched as Jesus pointed at six stone water-jars and asked them quietly to fill the jars with water. This was some task because each jar held nearly thirty gallons of water. But Mark wanted to trust the man and so he did as he was asked. When they had secretly filled the jars they returned to Jesus to hear what next he would ask of them. Was it possible he knew something about those jars and their problem they they didn't? Surely, Mark must have thought this was a crazy idea but he had heard some startling rumors about Jesus and he had nothing to lose so he went with it. Jesus nodded when they returned to him and said, "Now draw some and take it to your boss to taste." Some must have scoffed at this. Sure, after the good wine had been served and the guests had lost some of their ability to appreciate the quality of the wine they might be able to pass off worse wine as good but not water as wine. That's when Mark drew a cupful and saw it was red and smelled of wine. He took it to his boss and was surprised to hear it described as better than the first. He looked over his shoulder at Jesus and as he locked eyes with this man Mary's words ran through his head again: "Trust him and do whatever he tells you to do. No matter what." That day he became a follower and disciple.

Mark was not one of "the Twelve" but he was surely one of those who regularly traveled around listening to him preach and teach. He was sent out among the seventy to preach the Kingdom that Jesus could see coming and was anticipating eagerly. He did it not because he felt especially gifted or skilled but because Jesus had told him to do so and he was willing to trust Jesus and do whatever he instructed. Of course, this didn't always hold because--like everybody else--he abandoned Jesus on the night of his crucifixion. But, he was quick to return and further commit himself to trusting Jesus--God incarnate--who had died and been resurrected. Then, on that beautiful day when Jesus ascended again to the Father he gave a parting message to those who were assembled with him. Mark heard him command his followers to go into the world and take the Gospel that Jesus had taught and lived to anybody and everybody. Mark took this calling and commissioning very seriously and set out among the early Christians to share the faith at great cost to himself. He traveled with Paul and Barnabas for some time. He went far from his home in North Africa to the Church at Colossae at Paul's leading and teaching. He even went so far as Rome to help Paul in his missionary journeys.

When Paul was executed, Mark traveled back to near where he was born and raised. He ended up in Alexandria and he openly preached the Gospel message he had received: that God had loved us so dearly and furiously that God became human to show us the way back to God and died at our hands so that our sins might be placed upon God as a burden previously unknown and forever incalculable. But that wasn't the end because death and sin had been unable to hold God down in all of God's glory and God had broken them even as they worked their dark magic to destroy and dissolve the Creator and Lord of All Things. Having risen from the dead, God told us that this was only the first of many resurrections since God had broken and conquered death so that we might be forgiven and healed. This resurrection was an earnest promise of the future reconciliation and healing of all creation. For preaching this message, Mark was hated and despised by many Alexandrians. They wished to continue worshiping their Egyptian gods regardless of Mark's continued compassion and love for them. In the face of the forgiveness and love he offered them they could not continue to abide his presence and his message of hope and faith. So, in the year 68, they tied him to the back of some horses and dragged him through the streets until he was beaten to death by the rocks and people that awaited him on his route leading to death. In the end, he still heard the words of Mary: "Trust him and do whatever he tells you to do. No matter what." So, he had trusted him and done what he had taught without regard to cost.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

April 24 - Easter

Early on the first day of the week--when it was still dark and the sun had not yet risen--Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and discovered that the stone they had rolled over the tomb to seal it had been rolled away. It was a big stone so she was convinced that some treacherous conspiracy was afoot. She ran and found Peter and John and said to them, "Somebody has taken the Lord's body out of the tomb and I have no idea where they've gone with it!" Peter and John left immediately and ran to the tomb to see for themselves. John ran faster and go there first to see that the linen burial wrappings were still there but he didn't go in until Peter arrived and they could go in together. They examined the cloth wrappings--how they had been carefully rolled up and placed on the burial pallet. Though they didn't quite understand yet, the seeds of faith and redemption had further been sown within their hearts in that dark tomb. So, they returned to their homes because they didn't know what to do next.

Mary, however, stayed at the tomb and wept because of her sadness. As she wept she slumped down in grief but when she looked up she saw two angels in the tomb who were dressed in white. They were sitting on the place where Jesus had been laid. They said to her, "Why do you weep?"

She responded, "Somebody has taken the Lord's body out of the tomb and I have no idea where they've gone with it!" As soon as the words left her mouth she felt compelled to turn around--almost like she felt somebody watching her--and when she did she saw Jesus standing there but she was unaware that it was him.

Jesus said to her, "Why do you weep? What did you expect to find here?"

Still not recognizing him Mary assumed he must be the garden keeper and so she said to him, "Sir, if you're the one who has moved him then just tell me where he is and I'll go and get him."

Jesus said one--and only one--word: "Mary."

As the word left his mouth she suddenly recognized him and cried out in a mixture of surprise and joy. She cried out to him, "Teacher!" and embraced him.

"Don't hold on to me just now, Mary, because there's still work to be done" he began, "but, instead, go to my brothers and say to them, "Jesus is ascending to the Father--our Father. He is ascending to God--our God." So, Mary went and told the disciples all that had happened and what Jesus had said to her.

That evening the disciples--except Thomas--had all gathered together in one place to be with each other and to talk about what had happened not only the last few days but also earlier that morning. They had locked the doors because tensions were still high with the crucifixion of Jesus and they knew that their names were being mentioned by the powerful as trouble-makers and potential problems. Jesus came into the room--without opening the door--and said to them, "Peace be with you." Having said this, he showed them the wounds in his hands and in his side. The disciples burst out in joyful noise and tried to wrap their minds around the great thing that God had worked out of tragedy and despair. Jesus continued, "Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, I am sending you." Then he did something amazing. He breathed out onto them and as his breath settled on them he said, "Receive the Holy Spirit. Know that if you forgive the sins of anybody then they are truly forgiven but if you choose to retain them, then they are retained." Having given them this powerful responsibility and obligation, he left them for a little while.

The other disciples went and told Thomas all about what they had seen and what Jesus had said to them but he found it hard to believe that Jesus could have risen from the dead. He insisted that he would only believe it when he could feel the wounds on his body and place his hands upon them. The one who had said, "Come, let us go with him that we might die as well" now found it hard to believe in a gospel of resurrected life. So it was a week later when the disciples gathered and Thomas joined them. Although the door was shut, Jesus came in and stood among them repeating, "Peace be with you." He knew what Thomas claimed he needed and so he said to Thomas, "Here. Put your finger where the nails scarred my hands and put your hand where the spear pierced my side. You don't need to doubt. Trust me."

Thomas fell to his knees and exclaimed, "My Lord and my God!"

Jesus smiled and asked, "Do you trust me because you have seen me with your own eyes?" Then, continuing, he said, "Surely those who have not seen me and yet trust me are blessed."

Saturday, April 23, 2011

April 23 - Holy Saturday

Jesus had died. The Creator had willingly submitted to death at the hands of the creation. But, since it was the day of preparation for the Passover--the time that remembered great liberation--they knew that time was running short to bury the bodies. They could not do it on such a great Sabbath time but they were unwilling to let the bodies hang. So, they decided to ask Pilate to shorten the crucifixion process by breaking the legs of the condemned. If their legs were broken then they would be unable to continued to push themselves up for breath and would die from suffocation much quicker. Pilate consented to the request and, so, the soldiers first broke the legs of the two bandits that had been crucified with Jesus. Then, they came to Jesus and noticed that he no longer appeared to be breathing at all. As the two bandits screamed their agony, one of the soldiers fetched a spear. To determine whether or not he was dead they jabbed the spear into his side and blood and water came out but Jesus uttered no cry for he was truly dead. So, they didn't break his bones but instead pierced his side so that they might unknowingly fulfill the scripture which says, "None of his bones shall be broken" but, also, 'They will look on the one whom they have pierced."

After all this, one of Jesus' disciples by the name of Joseph of Arimathea came to Pilate and asked permission to take the body of Jesus for burial. Joseph's devotion had been a secret because of his fear of the consequences. But, he was willing to expose his allegiance for the cause of burying his Lord. Pilate consented to this request, as well, and so Joseph went and removed the body with Pilate's blessing. Another secret follower of Jesus made his allegiance known that day when he came to help bringing nearly a hundred pounds of myrrh and aloes to prepare the body--this disciple was Nicodemus who had come to him by night to ask questions of him. They took the body of Jesus and wrapped it in fine linen cloth using the spices and fragrances as directed by the burial customs of the Jews. There was a nearby garden that contained a newly-dug tomb. Jesus was the first body ever to rest in the tomb when they laid him there because of their concern for time.

And so the Creator died at the hands of creation and was buried within the bosom of creation. Having died to redeem creation,the one who never sinned was made to know sin intimately and be punished for all of the brokenness of creation.

Friday, April 22, 2011

April 22 - Good Friday

In the morning--after a long night of deliberation--the chief priests, elders, scribes and the whole council decided to hand Jesus over to Pontius Pilate. They bound him and gave him over to Roman hands for his fate to be decided by another. Pilate questioned him, "Are you the King of the Jews?"
Jesus responded, "You're the one who says it."

The people who had brought Jesus in chains--as if he were some dangerous criminal--began to accuse him of many and sundry things before Pilate but Pilate waved them off and asked him, again, "Are you the King of the Jews? Don't you have an answer for me?" He asked because this is what Rome really wanted to know deep down at the heart of the question: was Jesus proclaiming himself King over a Kingdom that Rome didn't endorse? He continued, "Won't you defend yourself? Do you not understand the gravity of what they're accusing you of?" Jesus didn't offer any reply and Pilate couldn't believe that he'd simply sit there and take it.

Rome had a custom in Jerusalem of releasing one prisoner from captivity every passover. This wasn't because of any innate mercy but, rather, because they recognized that the Jews hated them and dreamed of liberation. With the release of a prisoner, they could lessen the potential for revolution. Some in the crowd began asking Pilate for the release of a prisoner in accordance with the custom. Pilate devised a plan to pass the buck and so he had Barabbas brought out of prison in chains. Barabbas had committed murder in a recent rebellion and was considered a danger to the people. He asked the people if they wouldn't rather have Jesus released because he was aware that there was something suspicious about how Jesus ended up in his hands. But the crowd was stirred up to demand the release of Barabbas. Shocked, Pilate asked them, "Then what shall I do with your King?" They demanded that he should be crucified. "Why?" Pilate asked. "What has he done?" he questioned. There was no answer to his question but only more demands for Jesus to be crucified. So, Pilate caved to their demands in order to lessen the tension--he didn't want a revolution on his imperial record. He released Barabbas and had Jesus beaten before being handed over to be crucified.

After Jesus had been whipped and beaten the soldiers in charge of him led him into the courtyard of Pilate's headquarters and called together the whole cohort of Roman soldiers. Feeling full of imperial pride, they mocked him mercilessly. They put a purple cloak on him and called him "King" bowing before him in mock submission. If only they had known that sincerity could have brought redemption, they would have thought twice. The cloak became stuck to his body as the blood dried. They twisted some thorns into a crown and had a mock coronation of Jesus as a type of Caesar. Once they had had their fill of cruelty, they stripped the clothes from him--reopening his many wounds--and led him out to crucify him between two other revolutionaries.

After some time, they became aware that their beating and torture of Jesus had weakened him before his monumental task of carrying his own cross to the place of his death. So, they compelled Simon of Cyrene--the father of Alexander and Rufus--to carry the cross for him. They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha--meaning "place of skulls"--and offered him wine mixed with myrrh as was their custom. This drink would likely have numbed Jesus somewhat but he refused it They didn't care whether he suffered more so they didn't offer it again to him. They held him down--though he didn't resist--and drove spiked through his wrists. Then, they rose the cross up and with a thud it fell into its place in the ground. As he felt the first excruciating moments they gambled for his meager possessions and clothing.

Over his head they hung a placard with the charge that merited his death. It read, "The King of the Jews." The crowd that gathered heaped mockery and scorn upon him. One cried out, "Wait! Aren't you the one who said you could destroy the temple and build it in three days? If you're so great, why not come down and save yourself?"

The chief priests and scribes who attended his crucifixion joked with one another, "He saved others but he can't save himself? Let this Messiah--the King of All Israel, right?--come down so that we might see it and believe it." They laughed with each other at the ridiculous thought that God or God's Messiah would ever consent to die on a Roman cross. About three hours after all this started, darkness descended as far as the eye could see. This darkness lasted another three hours while Jesus died. At three o'clock Jesus cried out with a loud voice quoting the twenty-second psalm, "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" (meaning "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

Some of the bystanders misunderstood him and thought he was crying out for Elijah so as one of them ran to give him a drink from a sponge of sour wine they stopped him saying, "Wait a minute. Let's see if Elijah comes to take him down." Then, Jesus cried out and took his last pained breath. At that moment, an earthquake ripped the land and the veil in the temple that separated the Holy of Holies from the rest was torn in two from top to bottom even though it was very thick and the building was unharmed. At that moment, God died.

At this, the Roman centurion was amazed and remarked to those nearby, "Surely this man really was God's son."

Thursday, April 21, 2011

April 21 - Maundy Thursday

The chief priests and elders of the people were meeting together in the courtyard of the home of Caiaphas to talk about how they might put an end to the Jesus problem. They decided it was best not to do it during the festival because Jesus was popular among the people. Meanwhile, Jesus was with his disciples and he said to them, "You should know by now that the Passover is coming soon and I will be handed over to be crucified during that time."

Jesus was Bethany in the house of Simon the leper when a woman came when he was meeting with the disciples and broke open a jar of expensive ointment and poured it over his head as he sat there. The disciples were shocked and a little embarrassed so they wanted to know why she had--in their opinion--wasted the ointment when it could have been sold for much money and the money given to the poor. They were confident that Jesus would agree with them. As the disciples so often were, they were wrong again. Jesus said, "Why bother woman who has performed this beautiful act? You will always have the poor--this is a broken world that produces poverty and lack--but I am leaving you very soon. She has prepared me for burial--she gets what's happening now and is going to happen very soon--and let me assure you that this story will be told about her whenever somebody tells the story of these days.

Shortly thereafter, the disciple named Judas went to the chief priests and powerful people in Jerusalem and asked them, "I'm willing to betray Jesus to you for the right price." They gave him thirty pieces of silver--the approximate cost of a slave--and bought Judas' loyalty. From that moment onward, Judas began looking for his chance to betray Jesus.

That evening he sat down to the meal with his twelve closest disciples. While they were eating, he said, "I'm telling you the truth: one of you twelve who have grown so close to me will betray me." The disciples were shocked at how quickly their meal had turned sour. There was an immediate uproar as the twelve began verbalizing their surprise and then their questions. Not a one of them was so confident that they didn't ask who it was. They couldn't believe it was them but they couldn't deny the possibility that one of them had turned from their fellowship. Jesus insisted that it was one of them and that the one who did betray him would be better off having never been born.

Judas must have been nervous as the silver clinked in his pocket but he mustered up the courage to say, "Surely it's not me, Jesus."

Jesus turned to face Judas and said, "You're the one who says so."

As their meal continued Jesus raised a loaf of bread and after blessing it he broke it and passed it around the table. "Take this and eat it," he said, "because this is my body." Then he took the cup of wine and after praising God and giving thanks he passed it around. "Every one of you should drink from it," he said, "because this is my blood--the blood of the covenant--which is being poured our for many for the forgiveness of sins." As the twelve considered what had just happened he continued, "This is my last drink of wine until the day when I drink it again with you in my Father's Kingdom." They sang a song they had learned as children and then they went out to the Mount of Olives.

As they walked, Jesus said to them, "Each of you will desert me because of what happens tonight. Don't forget that it is written, 'I will strike the shepherd and the sheep of the flock will be scattered.' But don't worry--I will be raised up and will meet you in Galilee."

Peter found it hard to believe what Jesus was saying and so he said, "Teacher, even if everybody else does desert you I will never desert you."

Jesus replied, "I tell you the truth--even before the cock crows with dawn you will deny me three times." Peter insisted that Jesus was wrong and the other disciples joined with Peter in assuring Jesus that they would never desert him. Jesus kept walking and said nothing else on the matter because he knew that he didn't need to convince them because the next twenty-four hours would be convincing enough.

They arrived at a place known as Gethsemane and he had the disciples wait for him while he went a little further to pray. He took Peter, James, and John further and revealed to them that he was distressed and agitated. He said to them, "I am deeply grieved--even to death--so please remain here and stay awake with me while I pray. I don't want to be alone." He went a little further and began to pray concerning his impending betrayal and death. He prayed, "Abba, Father, if it's possible for this cup to pass from me then let it pass. But it's not about what I want but what you want." After much time in prayer he returned to Peter, James, and John and found them sleeping. He said to Peter, "You could not stay awake with me a single hour? Please stay awake. Pray that you might not come into the time of trial because the spirit may indeed be willing but the flesh is oh so weak." He went away again to pray and said, "Abba, Father, if the only way for this cup to pass is for me to drink then so be it." He returned to Peter, James, and John and found them sleeping again. He left and went back to pray a third time with the same words. Finally, he came back to his disciples and said, "Still sleeping? Wake up because it's all starting now. Watch, now, as I am betrayed into the hands of sinners. Look! Here comes my betrayer."

Judas led a crowd of soldiers and guards who brought clubs and swords with them into Gethsemane--as if they expected a fight. Judas approached Jesus with familiar and pleasant words. He kissed him and the guards and soldiers rushed forward because this had been the signal they had agreed upon. "Arrest the one whom I kiss," Judas had told them. They seized Jesus and Peter drew his sword to start the revolution that he had been dreaming about. He struck the slave of the high priest and cut off his ear. Jesus stopped the fight with his words, healed the man--reattaching the ear--and told Peter to put the sword away because the way of the sword was the way of death.

Turning his attention to the disciples, he asked, "Don't you know that I could call twelve legions of angels to me with only a word or the will to do so? But, then how am I to drink the cup that lies before me? How is the scripture to be fulfilled?" Turning to the crowd he asked, "Am I some kind of bandit that you come out at night with weapons to arrest me?" He continued, "I sat in the temple teaching for many days and you didn't arrest me, then. Why not? Why do you fear me when I teach peace and love?" They feared because in their hearts they knew the tragedy they were beginning. As he was led away by the crowd--to fulfill the scriptures--the disciples deserted him and fled.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

April 20 - Justin Martyr, Martyr, Apologist, "Samaritan"

Justin Martyr was born in a place known as Flavia Neapolis some 70 miles away from Jerusalem. But he was thoroughly influenced by the Greeks and Romans in his birth, childhood, and upbringing. Evidently his family was of some influence and considerable wealth because he had the relative luxury of an education in a time when education was a nice thing largely available only to the wealthy and powerful. He excelled in his studies and moved on to study philosophy in an anxious pursuit of wisdom and truth. He professed to be a lover of wisdom but at times it must have been easier to believe he was a lover of the comfort and security that money and education afforded him. Justin sought truth but found it nowhere that he looked until a Christian--one of those that Rome abhorred and detested--began to speak with him about the faith that he or she professed. Justin asked his questions and wondered openly if it might not be the case that this Jesus was right when he claimed to be "The Truth." As he studied the faith of the Christians more and more he found himself falling further and further into the grips of a faith that enlivened and comforted him in ways that influence, money, and acclaim could not. Soon, he became a convert and made it well known to his colleagues, peers, and students that he was no longer on a philosophical quest to find truth because he had met "The Truth."

He identified himself in his numerous writings as a Samaritan even though he was most definitely a Roman citizen and he had been raised to serve and follow the gods of his father and his father's father. Perhaps he identified himself as a Samaritan because he knew that in his faith he was the unlikely heir of the covenant promised to Abraham and others. He knew that he had been grafted into a story that was not his own but was, in fact, a story that ended in redemption and resurrection. Thus, he was an outsider who had been loved and cared for by Jesus and and he was an outsider that was on the route that led to salvation and healing. Or, perhaps, he identified himself as a Samaritan because he longed to live into the role of the Good Samaritan that Jesus had talked about. Perhaps Justin hoped to go where others refused to go to be with those the world rejected so that he might find Christ among the stranger and refugee. Regardless, he continued living a life of a philosopher and rhetorician but his speech turned to a testimony of what God had done in Jesus and what God wanted to do in the lives of those who heard Justin's words.

Given the incredible position that Justin had within Roman society he began to deliver the Gospel to ears that might never have heard it. He argued that while Rome was killing Christians it was missing the point and pronouncing Christians evil while being seduced to do so by evil itself. He insisted that Christians were not evil and were, in fact, following after "The Truth" even while others failed to see it. Eventually he was arrested for having the audacity to say such things as: "We pray for our enemies; we seek to persuade those who hate us without cause to live conformably to the goodly precepts of Christ, that they may become partakers with us of the joyful hope of blessings from God, the Lord of all." and "Wherein is it possible for us, wicked and impious creatures, to be justified, except in the only Son of God? O sweet reconciliation! O untraceable ministry! O unlooked-for blessing! that the wickedness of many should be hidden in one godly and righteous man, and the righteousness of one justify a host of sinners!"

Finally, those whom he preached to brought him to trial with other soon-to-be martyrs. The prefect said to them, "Sacrifice to the gods or you will be mercilessly tortured."

Justin replied, "Nobody in their right mind would give up faith for apostasy and your merciless torture is what we desire because it leads to our salvation and gives us confidence to face a greater trial--the judgment to which all men will come before our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." Then he joined with the others to be martyrs and invited the Romans to do whatever it was that they desired since they professed the Christian faith and refused to become apostates and sacrifice to the idols. So, they were tortured mercilessly and finally beheaded as an example to the Roman citizens of how evil the Christians were and how good the Romans were.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

April 19 - Alphege of Canterbury, Martyr, Peacemaker, Refused to be Ransomed

Alphege had known from a very early age what he wanted to do; he wanted to take vows and become a monk. So, at the earliest possible date for Alphege to make this commitment he applied and became a monk at Deerhurst. He proved not only his commitment but devotion to his calling and soon was transferred to Bath. At Bath he continued to demonstrate his devotion and eventually became the abbot of the community at Bath. In many ways he had been a spiritual leader among them for many years--leading them to take better care of the poor and practice compassion more intently--but his elevation to the role of abbot made the leadership official. His leadership and compassion had attracted the attention of the Archbishop of Canterbury and after years of service at Bath he was called to become the Bishop of Winchester at the age of thirty so that he could further serve the Church he loved.

He served as Bishop of Winchester for ten years of relative peace before a fateful day in the year 994 when the Danish vikings landed on the coastline of England and began rampaging through the nearby villages. They slaughtered and pillaged the Britons they encountered and eventually an envoy of ministers was sent by the Archbishop to negotiate a peace. Alphege was one of the men sent to speak with the leader of the vikings: Anlaf. A deal was brokered thanks to Alphege's willingness to relate to Anlaf. The group had purchased peace from Anlaf's raids with a regular tribute payment. Further, Anlaf agreed to listen to Alphege's preaching and was soon converted to the Christian way. It's hard to say whether or not Anlaf's conversion was solely because of its political expediency or because of an inner conviction but regardless of Anlaf's intentions it points to Alphege's willingness to relate and commune even with his enemies. After his great success and the death of the Archbishop, Alphege was elevated to the role of Archbishop of Canterbury. He went to Rome to receive this position and its symbols.

When he returned to England he was shocked to see viking raiders pillaging the Canterbury cathedral. These were not Anlaf's vikings--at least Anlaf was not there--so there was no treaty between them and the British people. These vikings were seeking a similar tribute as to what Anlaf had received and also copious amounts of ransom money. They captured Alphege and forced him to watch the burning of the cathedral and the brutal murder of many monks and priests. Finally, they let him know that he would be their prisoner until somebody paid them a ransom of 3,000 pounds of gold. He was an important figure and it was possible that his name could have fetched such a huge ransom but Alphege refused to be ransomed. He informed the vikings that he would not pay it or solicit anybody else to pay it because if it were paid by the government then it would come out of the hands of the poor. Alphege was unwilling to hurt the people he loved so that he might be given his life back. So, they beat him savagely and then busted his head open with the back of an axe. He was the first Archbishop of Canterbury to by martyred.

Monday, April 18, 2011

April 18 - Apollonius of Rome, Martyr, Apologist, Not Afraid to Die

Apollonius had spent years in study and was strikingly familiar with the major philosophers and schools of thought in the second century Roman empire. He had converted to Christianity because of the witness and testimonies of the early Church members but had continued to study the beliefs and convictions of those he had left behind and hoped to bring to faith with himself. He was a Roman senator and knew that his power brought a modicum of protection with it. He knew that there was a law against being a Christian but he knew two other things, as well: 1) the Roman rulers would not simply betray him without cause, and 2) he was called to share the grace and love that he had freely received. Eventually, one of his slaves betrayed him as a Christian to a praetorian prefect by the name of Perennis. It's likely that Perennis and others knew but they were turning a blind eye to Apollonius' faith because they had no desire to enforce the law upon their friend and respected colleague--they were comfortable enforcing the law upon "the little people" who didn't matter but feared what might happen if the laws were enforced fairly and equitably. So, Perennis had Apollonius arrested so that he might come to trial. He also had the slave's legs crushed as punishment for forcing the hand of the Empire.

As Perennis brought Apollonius to his trials he pleaded with him to renounce his faith--even if he "didn't mean it"--because those in power were all too willing to find him not guilty of the crime. He reminded Apollonius that the punishment for being a Christian was death and insisted that the right course of action for a senator like Apollonius was to renounce his faith and maintain his influence and power in the world. When Apollonius refused to apostatize before the court he was given over to the senate of which he was a member to be tried by his peers and--hopefully--dissuaded from his faith. This was the moment that Apollonius had been counting on and so he shared his faith with the whole senate. He knew they would give him a charitable ear because of their respect for him and that his arguments--well crafted by many years of education and the passion he now felt for life and truth because of his faith--would be heard without interruption. He ended his great testimony by praying, "O Lord Jesus Christ, give us a bit of your spirit so that we might be helped to obey your teachings to: make peace over anger, join in pity with others and for others, temper our desires, always increase in love, put away our sorrow, cast aside our foolish pride, not love vengeance, and not fear death. Help us to trust our spirit to God the Father who lives and reigns with You and the Holy Spirit now and forever." Perennis couldn't understand why Apollonius wasn't taking the easy and reasonable way out of death and yelled at him, "Are you determined to die today?"

Apollonius responded, "Oh no." He continued, "I very much enjoy life but my love of life does not make me afraid to lose it. There's something better waiting for me: eternal life! There is something better given to the person who has lived well on earth." He admonished the listening crowd to cast aside their pride and self-obsession but they were unwilling to pay the price of faith. He was convicted for his crime not because the senate was willing to convict one of its own but because he was unwilling even to pretend not to trust God. For his crime his legs were crushed and he was decapitated. He died a martyr who had been given a rare chance to preach the Gospel to his executioners.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

April 17 - Kateri Tekakwitha, Orphan, Persecuted by Both Sides, Lily Among the Mohawks

Kateri Tekakwitha had two parents and an older brother. All of them were part of the Mohawk people who lived in the northeastern parts of what is now known as North America. Her father was a Mohawk warrior and leader while her mother was ethnically Algonquin but she had been raised by French settlers and had been taught the Christian faith. She was captured by the Mohawk and became the wife of one of their men (the man who would be Kateri's father). Three years later she had given birth to a son and a newborn daughter. Her faith was tolerated as long as she kept it to herself but she seemed incapable of that task and shared it with both of her children as best as she knew how. When Kateri was only four years old an outbreak of small pox swept through her village. There seemed to be no escape from the contagion and, when it finally faded, little Kateri was the only one of her family who had survived it. In the aftermath she discovered that she had been left with a remembrance of this awful time: disfiguring facial scars. She was adopted by an uncle and two aunts in the village but her life was forever changed by this horrific outbreak.

As she grew older, she had no connections to the faith of her mother and knew of the European settlers only as insurgents and usurpers. When Kateri was only ten years old her village was raided and burned by the French. They came with their weapons and hatred and left a swath of destruction in their wake. Furthermore, these soldiers were accompanied by priests who seemed no more merciful or kind than the one who wielded the weapons. Kateri had every reason to distrust and despise the people who came bringing death and suffering in the name of Jesus but for some blessed reason she was able to look beyond their poor example and see the Lord they were unable faithfully to represent. When missionaries visited the new villages they were met with understandable and justifiable hostility. It turns out that you can't proclaim grace and love to a people whose neck you step on. Kateri, however, couldn't escape the feeling that God was calling to her and so she made a leap of faith that the God they claimed to follow did not guide them to do their evils. She met in secret with a priest, converted, and was baptized. For this conversion and baptism she was labeled a problem by her people and persecuted viciously. By taking up the cross of Jesus, she became an enemy both to her people and her people's enemies.

She tried to show her people the Christ that the Christians were obscuring but their evils had darkened the view for all who would find the one who offers life more abundant and free--the one who died on a cross for all peoples. Most of the Mohawk were resistant to listening to Kateri and the persecution only continued. Eventually--after many threats and a few attempts to take her life--she was forced to flee and find refuge elsewhere. She escaped at night and traveled with a few other young Christian Mohawks to Sault-Sainte-Marie where other Christian natives were living in community. She devoted herself to a life of prayer and took a personal vow of chastity so that she might further devote herself to the Lord she had found in spite of all the odds. At one time she wanted to start a convent of native Christian women but this did not happen before she died at the age of twenty-four. Her last words were a testament of love for her Savior: "Jesus, I love you!" She died an inspiration to those who knew her. She had been willing to give up anything and everything to follow after a foreign Lord who was not well-represented but who had called her anyway.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

April 16 - Benedict Joseph Labre, Beggar, Unsuitable for Communal Life, Fool for Christ

Benedict Joseph Labre was the oldest child of a wealthy and successful business man in northern France but he didn't feel a calling to a life of comfort and prosperity as the caretaker of his father's business. Instead, he felt called to an oddity--an abnormal life of special penance--and struggled to explain it to those he loved and who loved him. He left his fourteen brothers and sisters at the age of sixteen to find a place in a local monastery so that he might expand upon his regular confession and penance with vows of obedience, poverty, and chastity. First, he was rejected from the order of the Trappists and labeled "unsuitable for communal life" because of his incredible zeal for penance and reformation of self. He then applied to the order of the Carthusians but was rejected for the same reasons. Finally, he was rejected from the Cistercians for precisely the same rationale. It seems that each of the orders found him to be excessively solitary and doubted his ability to adhere to a vow of obedience in a communal life. So, Benedict had nowhere to go to become a monk. So, instead, he became a holy fool.

Benedict gave away all of his possessions and decided to go on a continual pilgrimage to the holy places of his Faith. Though he never traveled to Israel, he did make pilgrimage to the western cities of spiritual and ecclesial significance. Additionally, and most peculiarly, he made his pilgrimage on foot with no possessions and no plans. He traveled first to Rome and found the journey challenging but formative. He had no food except that which was given to him and he had nowhere to sleep except the open places of the fields and an occasional corner of a room from a caring family or congregation. He was a beggar by choice and by calling. His begging helped remind the communities he encountered of their strict calling. He was no monk and yet he lived a life of devotion and service--this kind of commitment shocked those who saw him and must have made them rethink their own lives. Having no possessions, he had nothing to lose and so he reminded the Church of its early years and its essential commitments. He talked very rarely and prayed almost constantly and thereby called the Church back to attentive listening to God and away from careless talk and posturing with words.

Over the course of his life--and his unending pilgrimage--he traveled to Loreto, Bari, Einsiedeln, Paray-le-Monial, Assisi, Compostela, and Naples. That is to say he traveled through Italy, France, Spain, and Switzerland in his many and constant travels. In fact, as he traveled, his life became nothing more than one extended pilgrimage which became an example to the Church of the transience of our own place and existence in this world. Those who looked upon Benedict could not help but be reminded that the Christian's first allegiance is to a Kingdom "not of this world" and to a calling that sometimes demands what the world deems irrational. He was rarely fed well enough to fill his stomach--and it's likely he would have refused this comfort anyway--but Benedict was also well known for distributing what the gifts he did receive to the poor he met and loved. He dwelt with the homeless--for he was indeed homeless--and prayed for their healing with regularity. Often, they found it through his prayers and ministry. In Holy Week of 1783, Benedict was in Rome and attending a worship service when he collapsed from hunger and malnutrition. He was carried to one of the Church's hospitals and cared for but he died shortly thereafter from the complications of a self-selected hard life. He was only thirty-five when he died and though he might have been "unsuitable for communal life" he was most definitely suitable for the calling placed upon him by his Lord.

Friday, April 15, 2011

April 15 - Damien of Moloka'i, Priest, Missionary, Leper

The kingdom of Hawaii had one particular advantage when it came to the spread of disease since they were a chain of islands they were quarantined from the rest of the world. Of course, this boon carried a danger with it: the inhabitants were especially susceptible to infection and disease when ships began bringing more and more merchants to the Hawaiian islands. The influx of commerce and foreign visitors was accompanied by crippling outbreaks of influenza that weakened and killed many. But whereas influenza was a fast killer and survivors were able to develop a fairly sufficient immunity in a little while, there was another disease that proved to be a slow and torturous killer. This killer was "Hansen's Disease" but it is also known as leprosy and those who contracted it were known as lepers. It was hard to hide and soon the king--Kamehameha the Fifth--decided to quarantine those affected to protect the rest of his people. They were forcibly detained and sent to live on the island of Moloka'i at a place called Kalaupapa. Contrary to common assumptions, leprosy does not cause body parts to fall off and isn't especially contagious but it does cause extensive nerve damage and can cause permanent damage to the skin, eyes, and lungs. The other--perhaps intentionally forgotten--damage it does is the relationships it crushes by fear of contagion and threat of quarantine.

Damien de Veuster had been ordained a priest in Belgium but due to the coaxing of his brother he became interested in becoming a missionary. He became determined to travel abroad in service of the Church when it was determined that his brother would be unable to go himself. Damien stepped into the opportunity and was sent to Hawaii shortly before the outbreak of leprosy there. The lepers had been sent to their isolated place and given little in supplies, though, and Damien began to worry for them. They had been given some help in growing their own food--having been fully divorced from their land and people--but this support also proved to be insufficient. They were disconnected from those they loved and made to feel as if the world didn't want to--couldn't afford to--associate with them. There wasn't any semblance of community and the 816 lepers outcast to Moloka'i fended for themselves. Damien couldn't stand their abandonment and petitioned the vicar to be sent to them as their priest. The vicar made sure that Damien knew he was likely signing his own death warrant but Damien insisted and was sent by boat to the people. By becoming one of them, he was effectively exiling himself as he would no longer be able to leave once he lived among them. He went without hesitation for his Lord had called him to take up his cross and follow. In this case, it meant going to Moloka'i.

Damien built a church with the help of the lepers there and organized them into a community around himself. He treated their pains and lesions with his own hands. He conducted services of worship. He heard confessions and gave spiritual direction to the willing. He built furniture and homes. He painted houses to give their place another measure of comfort. He built coffins, dug graves, and performed funerals. In short, he became a devoted member and leader in the community at Moloka'i. Because of his involvement, the people gathered around him and joined together as one people to share in their suffering and carry each other's burdens. Because of his leadership they were able to work together to sow and reap crops each year and sustain themselves in their exile. One night he went to soak his feet in hot water--as he did every night after a hard day's work--and was frightened to find that he could not feel the heat of the water. He had contracted the disease but he kept it as his secret for a little while he worked hard to prepare the citizens of his community to go on without him when he was forced to leave them by death. As he got more and more sick the Church sent three people to take over his duties and one to care for him as he died. They carried on his legacy of love and compassion while he slipped out of this life and into the arms of the Lord who had called him from before time began. Damien died on the fifteenth day of April in the year 1889 after serving the people the world wanted to forget for over sixteen years. He was buried where he belonged: Moloka'i.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

April 14 - Anthony, John, and Eustathius, Martyrs, Teachers, Prisoners

Prince Olgerd had not expected his prison to become an impromptu school for Christians but he couldn't say that he had nothing to do with it, either. He had been a Christian when his wife, the princess, had been alive but he returned to his non-Christian ways after her untimely death. As the prince he wielded much power and as his wrath turned upon the Christians it became increasingly difficult for Anthony and his two brothers--John and Eustathius--to stay out of trouble. Though they had once been friends of the prince, they were now outlaws and unwelcome in their former circles. When they refused to be quiet about their faith they were arrested and held in prison for over a year. Eventually, the prison became a place of pilgrimage for Lithuanian Christians and the hallways were full of students who listened to the brothers as they preached their faith. This infuriated Olgerd but he couldn't get away with such massive slaughter so he determined that he would make clear to the Christians and the non-Christians who were finding their way to faith the consequences of that faith. After giving Anthony one more chance to deny his faith Olgerd had Anthony hung from an oak tree that was sacred to the pagans. He hung him as an example of what happened to those who opposed Olgerd's power and will. Regrettably, he was only the first. Olgerd's efforts to intimidate the people failed even though Anthony died because those who had listened to him at the prison now gathered in a service of worship around the tree.

John's story is similar as he was arrested at the same time and ended up hanging from the same oak tree because of his faith. But the middle was a drastically different story of reconciliation. After nearly a year in prison, John became frightened by the increasing threats of torture and death. When he was given a chance to deny his faith and escape his fate he took the chance and was set free. Brothers Anthony and Eustathius were saddened by John's apostasy but they continued in their work of preaching and teaching without him. John only fully realized what he had done when he was free. He found that his freedom was more like being adrift and alone. After some time he went to his priest and asked how he might be reconciled to the Church. His priest suggested that he needed the forgiveness of his brothers and so his priest asked on his behalf what he might to be reconciled with Anthony and Eustathius. He was told that he must willingly confess his faith before Olgerd. John found Olgerd at a public bath and confessed his faith to him in private but found this to be insufficient because Olgerd was willing to allow him to be Christian as long as he never talked about it. So he did the ridiculous and faithful thing: he loudly proclaimed his faith to all of the prince's attendants and guards. He was beaten and taken to prison. He was the second to die on the tree and the second to occasion a worship service at the tree because of his martyrdom. The crowds remained unafraid of Olgerd and Olgerd's power.

Eustathius was the only one left in the prison cell but he continued his brothers' work of preaching and teaching. He had been the dear friend of Olgerd and so Olgerd had chosen to kill both of his brothers first so as to try to "save his life." He was unaware that Eustathius was ready to join his brothers in their martyrdom. Finally, Olgerd decided that he must do everything within his power to assert his dominance and convince one of the brothers to renounce their faith before the students and crowds so that he might regain the power he had lost and been unable to regain through death and sin. He had Olgerd slowly tortured in public view of the crowds. Olgerd's soldiers stripped him of his clothing and beat him severely with iron rods hoping that he would lose his faith or, at least, the crowds would lose their courage in the face of such brutality. When this proved unsuccessful and Eustathius refused even to cry out in pain the soldiers broke both of his ankles and forced him to walk some distance. They tore out his hair and through it all he continued to smile and offer his forgiveness. He even took the time to preach a little until he was no longer physically able. Finally, he was hung from the same tree as his brothers. After this third martyrdom the tree became better known as a Christian place of pilgrimage instead of a pagan place. Olgerd's efforts were ultimately fruitless as the Christian community only continued to grow in the near future.