Thursday, December 14, 2017

December 14 - Juan de la Cruz, Mystic, Reformer, Imprisoned

Juan had a challenging childhood. His father died and left him and his mother and two older brothers alone at Avila in central Spain. Further, theirs was a family among the great group known as conversos--Jews forced to convert at the tip of a sword. Though his family had been forcibly converted to a faith that had cost them any chance at financial success and committed many sins against them, Juan found himself at home in the Christian faith. He was educated at a Jesuit institution when the Society of Jesus was still new. The Jesuit founder--Ignatius of Loyola--may have been alive for the first few years that Juan spent studying. As he grew older, he joined a Carmelite monastery with intentions of eventually becoming a Carthusian hermit.Then, he met Teresa.

Teresa de Avila (or Teresa of Jesus as she is sometimes called) spoke to Juan in a way that enticed him. She convinced him--slowly at first--not to join the Carthusians in pursuit of solitude and prayer but rather to make a life of reformation his prayer. Teresa was working to bring reformation to the Carmelite order and saw a coworker in the recently-ordained Juan. They began to work together and spiritual formation and maturity seemed to travel in their wake as they settled among various Christian communities. They were, however, met with resistance--as can be expected--by those who were uninterested in the reformation and healing of the Church.The resistance began as being barred from entering some convents and monasteries but eventually became more severe as they became more influential among spiritual communities.

Juan had been ordered to relocate by a superior--perhaps to break up his work with Teresa--and had been advised to stop his reforming work. When he refused both, he was seized by his brothers and imprisoned in a small cell. It was barely big enough for him to lay down and yet they felt it was the best place to keep him. He was fed and given water but was abused and mistreated by the same people who he had covenanted to love and take care of. Weekly, he was brought out of his cell to be publicly whipped and humiliated for his works of reformation and discipleship. While in his cell he wrote poetry including his most famous poem: La noche oscura del alma or The Dark Night of the Soul. In it, we read of the mystic path that leads the follow of Christ through a dark night of the seeming absence of God from the life of the disciple. In this dark place, disciples learn to lay down their egos and lives so that they might find life through death and darkness. In his small cell, these words must have resonated in his soul to provide him with some modicum of comfort even as his life seemed to fall apart around him. 

He was able to engineer and escape by breaking his cell door and squeezing through a small window in a nearby room. Having left captivity behind, he tried to return to a normal life and found himself consistently drifting back to the monastic life. Instead of seeking solitude again, Juan began founding monasteries with Teresa and continuing to pursue the reformation of the Church he loved and had served even in the face of its enemies and adversity.

Wednesday, December 13, 2017

December 13 - Lucia, Martyr, Unpolluted, Generous

The coins clattered to the stone and Lucia looked around as if she expected somebody to notice. In fact, many people noticed the sound of coins hitting the ground in this poor neighborhood but none of the people were her wealthy soon-to-be husband. She had no trouble giving away the money but knew it must be done in relative secrecy lest her betrothed find out that she was giving away her dowry. Her mother had not approved and had begged her to think of her father--her recently passed father--but could not convince her. At least, not since that night at Agatha's tomb when she had been healed from her bloody problem. They had waited and prayed all night and Lucia's mother had finally been healed but Lucia had been the recipient of a vision at the same moment that foretold her soon coming martyrdom. Mom had been happy to be healed and Lucia had not let her know what she had learned. Instead, she proposed that she be allowed to give away her dowry to the poor as an act of alms giving. Of course, mom had resisted but Lucia won out. As she handed over the last of the coins, she breathed a sigh of relief--partly because she had maintained the secrecy and partly because she was glad to finally be rid of the bride money--after all, she had committed herself to a celibate life and had no desire to be a bride in this world.

Yet, as thing so often happen, her betrothed was quick to find out. He was a wealthy man and so he had much influence. Great influence in a city buys many eyes in various places and some of them had told him that they thought they had seen her in the streets giving away a large sum of money. He confronted her and asked to see the dowry set aside for him to gain when he finally married her. She knew she had been caught and so she admitted that she had given it away--knowing well that her martyrdom was likely to 
spring from this moment of opportunity. "If you don't replace it, I will betray your secret--that you are a Christian--to the magistrate. Maybe then you'll see some sense once you've given up these silly Christian fables." he yelled. She nodded because she knew he would and because she had come to accept it.

Lucia was arrested at her his insistence and dragged before magistrate Paschasius. This was during the time of the Diocletian persecutions and being Christian was akin to high treason. She was ordered to make a sacrifice upon the Roman altars and she refused. Paschasius was not surprised by any means--it seemed that the Christians were only all too willing to refuse and die if the other option was denying their Faith. "If you do not," said Paschasius, "then you'll be killed. Offer sacrifice and live." Paschasius wasn't surprised but he was confused--what could be so valuable as to forfeit your life--it didn't make any sense to him (it never does to the Empire).

"Here is my offering," Lucia began, "I offer myself to God, let God do with His offering as it pleases Him." Paschasius sat in shocked silence for a moment. Lucia's betrothed was dumbstruck by what he might call her lunacy but others might call her courage. Paschasius finally asked her why she would not like to keep her life and be married. He pointed out many of the desirable traits of her betrothed. Lucia let them know that she had committed herself to celibacy and was not interested in marriage.

At this, Paschasius saw an opportunity to wring a denial out of her. "Deny your faith," he said slickly, "or I'll turn you over to the brothel to be raped and become a prostitute." He gloated to himself and smiled what can only be called a smile of self-satisfaction. In this, he had revealed the Empire's great lust to control and dominate even if by evil means. He fully expected her to give in but this time he truly was surprised.


Lucia said: "No one's body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me." Furious, Paschasius ordered her eyes gouged out and then to be martyred. The soldiers followed through and ended her life as a martyr.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

December 12 - Alice Domon and Companions, Martyrs, Victims of Operation Condor, Human Rights Activists


Alice didn't know what drugs they had given her but she did know that she found it hard to think let alone move. She had a thought tickling the back of her mind but she couldn't get a grip on it but it was probably for the bet. After all, these people who had drugged her clearly didn't have good plans for her. Though these were not the men who had tortured her, they were associated with them. As the vibrations of the plane buzzed through her body, her mind drifted back to the day she had first arrived in Argentina.

Alice had been born in eastern France in the year 1937. As a child, she lived through World War II and saw many of its atrocities first hand. She knew the evil that anonymous empires and states could perpetrate if allowed. She was steeped in a culture that knew well the violation of human rights. As a child, she began to feel a tug on her heart to serve her God in a foreign land. She joined a society of French missioners and in 1967 was sent with other nuns and priests to Argentina to minister to the handicapped in Buenos Aires. Yet, this wasn't the only thing she did when she was there. Soon, she became invested in the political and social problems the country. She began ministering in the shanty-towns, as well. When the country underwent a coup in 1976 and installed Jorge Rafael Videla as president, the stage was set for Alice's dramatic end.

Following the brutality of the coup, Alice began associating with a group called "Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo" that had one particular interest: revelation of the names of those who had been "disappeared" by the party now in power. They began to make demands that the State own up to its treacheries and admit what it had done. But, fighting for the desaparecidos insured that the State would take notice--they had worked hard to disappear them and didn't want them brought up again. Eventually, they sent men pretending to be family members of the handicapped to kidnap Alice with some her friends and loved ones. They took the nuns and hid them in government buildings with the intention perpetrating a vast conspiracy to blame their torture and death upon opponents of their newly installed regime. At one point, they had tied Alice to a bed, stripped her, and slashed and stabbed her naked and exposed body. Finally, they decided to make her disappear.

So, they grabbed the drugged nun and opened thebay door of the plane. They were flying over the Argentinian coast and the soldiers were tied to the frame of the plane so that they might not join their victims in their fast approaching death. Alice offered a prayer as the soldiers grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her from the plane. She fell quickly and hit the water hard enough to kill and dismember her instantly. She was made to disappear but her story was again uncovered and told so that people might not forget the difference between the State and the Church--so that people might not forget the disappeared.

Monday, December 11, 2017

December 11 - Victoricus, Fuscian, and Gentian - Martyrs, Missionaries

"Victoricus...Fuscian," Gentian called to them in a hurried voice, "you need to leave Therouanne if you want to live." He continued, "Your presence here has been a blessed one and many have become Christians because of your words but you must now retreat if you hope to save your lives."Victoricus and Fuscian looked at each other and weighed Gentian's words carefully. They had expected that they would eventually run into this kind of resistance. They had arrived in Therouanne to spread the Gospel to the people who lived along the coast of the North Sea in what is now known as France but was then known as Belgica. Gentian spoke truly: their mission work had been very successful and had even brought Gentian--an elder in the community--into the Christian fold.

The two men conferred and return to the anxious Gentian. They knew what they must do if their testimony was to hold in the region. If they fled persecution, then many would finally believe that their true colors had been shown and abandon the Faith they had offered as worthless or manufactured. They steeled their resolve and gave Gentian the news that they would not be fleeing and that they would, instead, continue sharing the faith that would very likely cost them their lives.

The governor had tired of Victoricus and Fuscian and had decided to give them a choice: denying their faith or dying. However there was a problem: he didn't know where they were and had no way of finding them. Although, he had heard that old man Gentian had recently seen them and so he had Gentian dragged before him. "Where are they, old man?" the governor demanded. Gentian refused to tell. "If you won't tell me, then you'll die. Eventually, somebody will tell me and they'll die, too. Save yourself" the governor concluded. Gentian refused again and was martyred.

Eventually, somebody did tell and Victoricus and Fuscian were brought before the governor and ordered to deny their faith. If they did, it would be quickly spread that the Roman Empire was stronger than the Christian Gospel. It would appear to be a victory for power over love and dominance over mercy. They refused and were tortured by having metal spikes driven through their nose and ears. Finally, when they still refused to give in, they were beheaded and their bodies cast aside. In the wake of their strong testimony, Christianity took roots and flourished in and around Therouanne. By hoping to stop the spread of the Faith within the region, the governor only cemented its hold upon the hearts and minds of a people who respected and valued three men who refused to retreat simply because of fear.

Sunday, December 10, 2017

December 10 - Thomas Merton, Monk, Author, Activist


Thomas had only stepped out of the shower--such an innocuous thing--but it proved to be the last action in a chain of actions that resulted in his death. He was in Bangkok and had recently given a talk to an eager and interested audience. Indubitably, most (if not all) of them had read his work and were happy to hear him talk about it. It was the 27th anniversary of his entrance into the monastery--the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky--and he must have been aware of it. He reached out to the fan--perhaps to turn it on or off--and when his hand made contact, the poorly grounded fan electrocuted him. He died nearly instantaneously. In the forty years since his death, people--many who never met him and who might not have even been born when he died--have mourned his death and insisted that he died too young and too soon.

Thomas' story is a long and interesting journey that he recorded in his own spiritual autobiography: The Seven Storey Mountain. He had been born into a family of nominal religious affiliation in France but had been baptized in the Anglican church. His mother was a Quaker by birth but died young and had a limited impact upon him. Her death, however, haunted him for the rest of his life. As a child, he moved very often because of the rootless life of his artist father. For many years, he lived in America with his baby brother and grandparents but during his adolescence he was a student in European boarding schools while his father traveled and attended art shows. He had little to no spiritual involvement at the time and by his own recollection only rarely attended a religious service. At the age of fifteen, Thomas' father died from a brain tumor and Thomas began to live upon his inheritance as it was watched over by his father's friend and physician.

Years later, Thomas would begin to feel and resist a calling toward the Church. It seems that synchronicity and serendipity were constantly at play and Thomas became more and more connected with the Church. At first, it was the Byzantine mosaics that brought him into sanctuaries. He wrote:
"I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found...thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim...though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher."
So, Thomas became a pilgrim on a path that unknowingly was drawing him to Jesus and to service. Yet, he struggled deeply with the death of his father and mother and the declining health of his grandparents. He descended into a world sustained by alcohol and sexual conquest. It seems incredibly likely that he fathered a son during one of these trysts. Yet, no matter how much he resisted the call upon his life, he was drifting inexorably toward redemption. Eventually, after many years of fighting and resisting, he took his vows as a Trappist monk and was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemani. There, he was able to live in silence, write, and live a life of contemplation and prayer. His writings have comforted and challenged people ever since. So also have his interests in comparative religion and radical hospitality for others.

It is impossible to share the impact of Thomas Merton upon others without reading some of his writing. Thomas was called to write and lived into the calling with a passion that occasionally got him rebuked by those in power. Any telling of Thomas' story that did not include some of his writing would be remiss and so I include my own favorite passage:

"In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking form a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream."

Saturday, December 9, 2017

December 9 - Leocadia and Eulalia, Martyrs, Eager to Confess


Eulalia and Leocadia may never have met each other on our own side of the dusky vale of death. Regardless, their lives had an impact upon one another. Leocadia had been gathered up from the streets of Toledo, Spain, by the Roman empire in yet another attempt to stifle and neutralize the Christian presence. The Diocletian persecutions were in full force and had drawn blood throughout the Empire but in the days of Eulalia and Leocadia, it was particularly bad in Roman Spain. Leocadia's story was like so many other martyrs--she had been identified as a Christian and drawn before the powers of the Empire and given a chance to deny her faith to save her life.Leocadia's faith was strong, however, and she refused to concede to the wishes of the Empire since they would require her to betray herself and her Lord. As was the practice of the Empire, Leocadia was beaten and tortured for her refusal. The Empire's hope was that the pain it could inflict might win out over the faith of the Christian. The Empire always thinks in terms of self-preservation and avoidance of pain--this is one of the high values of the Empire--and not in terms of glory and the Kingdom of God. The greatest power of an Empire always has been--and always will be--the ability to deprive somebody of their life and when somebody no longer holds their life to be protected at all costs, the Empire loses their domination. So, Leocadia was returned to her cell in prison so that she might think over her refusal in hopes that time would combine with her wounds to render a denial.

While Leocadia languished in prison, Eulalia was at home. As a Spanish Christian, she had known many of the people gathered up in the Imperial raid. Though she was only thirteen, she also knew the inevitable fate of those who refused to deny their faith when placed under the unrelenting scrutiny of the Empire. Somehow, her name had escaped the list of Christians and she had been left alone while her brothers and sisters began to suffer on account of their common faith and Lord.Eulalia was distressed that she was not numbered with her brothers and sisters--Leocadia being one of them--and so she went to the tribunal and confessed her faith before the ears of an Empire that had not asked. For this crime of faith, she was arrested and tortured like her brothers and sisters. Supposing that she might be humiliated and induced into apostasy, they stripped her of all of her clothing and cast her out on the steps of the tribunal. Eulalia suffered the indignity of being laughed and leered at in the public square but refused to deny her faith because of the temporary and desperate machinations of the Empire.

Eulalia was brought in from her humiliation and taken to a public execution. Along with other Christians, this eager martyr was burned at the stake and her ashes were scattered. The story of Eulalia seeking out the powers and confessing her faith drifted through the prison cells and brought a new confidence and joy to those who were facing their own martyrdom. Leocadia heard the story and fell to her knees. She was still bleeding and hurting from her last experience with the Imperial death-dealers but she had a new determination.Praying to God, she cried out, "Lord, deliver me from a world that allows a woman like Eulalia to die at the hands of an Empire like the one that holds me even now. If Eulalia has died so eagerly, then so do I desire to die."Having prayed this and aroused the attention of her guards, she died without being touched or harmed in any additional way.

Friday, December 8, 2017

December 8 - Walter Ciszek, Prisoner, Priest, Seed Planted in the Gulag

"Walter, have you heard that Lubyanka is the tallest building in Moscow?" asked Walter's fellow prisoner," they say you can see Siberia from the basement." It had been meant as a joke to relieve some of the mundane and oppressive tension that highlighted the lives and days of the prisoners in Lubyanka. Walter laughed but it might be because of the absurdity of it all and his growing need for companionship with other people. Walter was primarily kept in solitary confinement while at Lubyanka even though he was no physical threat to the other prisoners or the guards. He was confined for the purposes of cruelty and restricted on a whim. He had come a long way from the small Polish family in Shenandoah, Pennsylvnia, in the United States of America. Even now his family wondered what had happened to Walter. He had not led an exemplary life in the United States but his family still dearly missed him and prayed daily for his safe return. Regrettably, though, they were increasingly convinced that he would never return and was likely no longer alive. When he had left the life of a gang member behind to become a Jesuit priest, they had assumed that his life was taking steps in the direction of safety and security. But then he had accepted a calling.

Walter heeded the desperate call by the pope for priests to become missionaries to Russia in the early twentieth century. It was not an especially safe time for men to immigrate to Russia but the Church seized upon the opportunity and soon he found himself in Rome studying to become a priest while also learning the Russian language and history. When he arrived in Russia, he became a logger and got to work becoming part of a culture that was not his own. In his spare time, he began hearing confession and saying mass in secret. The Soviet State had no room for Christians and was quick to isolate them from others. Perhaps the Soviets had learned from the actions of Rome and knew that the Christian story was contagious and would continue to spread--maybe even faster-- as you tried to kill Christians to silence them. So, instead of killing Walter, they arrested him and threw him into one of their most secure prisons. This hadn't been enough and he continued to share his faith with the people he met and eventually they were forced to further restrict him. In an act of desperation, they ordered him sent to one of the many Gulag camps. It seems that they truly could see Siberia from the basement at Lubyanka.

In this attempt to silence Walter, they only firmly planted a seed in frozen Russian soil. They had dropped him into the camp expecting him to give up and eventually die from exhaustion and exposure. He was among prisoners of all different types and crimes. Some had been sent to the camp for speaking out against the government--even as little as telling a joke that was deemed disrespectful of the State--or being too closely related to somebody who had been marked for exile. Children, women, and men labored in the cold to support the State and save their own necks. Yet, Walter still heard confession and held services in the camp. In their attempt to isolate Walter, the State had only given him a larger audience and nurtured the tiny plant that was Walter's ministry in Russia.

Even after he was released from the camp and moved between other cities, he continued to offer ministry and aid to those who were seeking it. He wrote to his family for the first time in nearly fifteen years and they were surprised and overjoyed to learn that the brother and son whom they had presumed dead was alive--the one they thought lost had been found. His release was eventually negotiated by the United States of America so that he might come home and a Soviet spy and his wife might return to Russia. Even as he was being released, the Soviets still considered him a spy and failed to understand that he had been a missionary for a Kingdom that is not of this world. After twenty-three years of imprisonment he was reunited with his family and lived the remainder of his days as a minister in Pennsylvania. Twenty-five years ago, today, he died.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

December 7 - Ambrose of Milan, Reluctant Bishop, Careful Leader, Doctor of the Church


Ambrose hadn't expected to be interrupted in the middle of his speech. Of course, he had expected there to be a degree of outrage and confusion at the meeting but it was unexpected for it to interrupt the address he had been asked to give to bring peace and calmness to the crowd. Auxentius--the bishop of Milan--had died only recently and there was considerable conflict over who would succeed him. Auxentius had been an Arian and the other Arians insisted upon the appointment of one of their number. The non-Arians insisted that Arianism was heterodox and that an orthodox bishop should be appointed. In the middle of Ambrose's address on the need for unity and peace, he was interrupted by cries of "Ambrose, bishop!" He shook his head humbly and tried to pick up the fast escaping thread of his address but soon the cries were being voiced by the whole crowd. Both Arians and non-Arians approved of the conciliatory nature of Ambrose's words and so they insisted upon his appointment in one voice.

However, Ambrose was reluctant to accept the position. He insisted that they seek some other fit person to serve. He protested that he wasn't even baptized and found a hiding place with a dear friend. The word of Ambrose's appointment spread and soon the emperor was congratulating the people in Milan for their selection noble-born Ambrose. When word continued to spread Amrbose's host and friend eventually gave up his hiding place and Ambrose reluctantly agreed to become bishop of Milan. Within the following week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and installed as bishop of Milan. Soon, he was overseeing the life of the Church in Milan and providing counsel to the priests in the city using his extensive political and diplomatic experience and expertise.

Ambrose was an able and competent bishop who helped define the relationship between the Church and the State--not to mention he also advised and mentored Augustine of Hippo. When emperor Theodosius had massacred 7,000 people in the city of Thessalonica, it was Ambrose that hoped to win back the emperor's heart from death and evil through tough love. He refused to admit Theodosius to the shared Eucharistic table and went so far as to suggest he would excommunicate the emperor if penance was not done. Theodosius had executed an atrocity and Ambrose understood that the only way back for the emperor was the way of repentance and forgiveness. Under Ambrose's direction, Theodosius repented and served public penance for his crimes.

Ambrose's influence upon the growth and development of the Church during a turbulent time should not be understated. He had kept the Church together even in times of theological dispute and civil unrest. For this reason, it is right to remember his story and to resolve to seek unity and peace with the same fervor as our brother Ambrose.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

December 6 - Nicholas, Generous, Wonder Worker, Anonymous Gift Giver


Nicholas knew the likely consequences of the man's poverty--his three daughters would have no dowry and would not be able to marry because of it. If they couldn't marry, then they would likely follow the same path that so many other poor, unmarried women did at the time: prostitution. This thought chilled Nicholas' heart and so he devised a plan. Taking a significant portion of the wealth he inherited from his parents, he converted it to gold and divided the gold equally among three sacks. As day gave way to dusk and the frenetic activity of the street faded into yet more noisy memories, Nicholas left his home and began walking toward the home of the man and his three daughters.

That first night, he must have felt nervous since he wasn't planning to be noticed. He waited until a group of people were walking down the street by the home and joined in with their gentle throng. He had spied the window of the home and noticed that it was open that night and would allow him the safest and easiest way to leave the gold. If he left it on the doorstep, it would likely be stolen but he couldn't knock and hand it to them without being noticed. Instead, he waited as his group passed the doorway and tossed the sack through the window. The sack landed with a pleasant thud and the jingling of coins. The father picked up the bag to see what type of garbage had been tossed through the window and discovered that it was filled with gold. Immediately, his thoughts went to his daughters and he rejoiced that he was a little closer to providing a dowry for his daughters. His thoughts turned to fear, though, as he considered that surely this was dropped by some wealthy man walking the street and so he opened the door to find the man who would be frantically searching for his money. There was nobody left on the street. So, the father waited up several eager hours silently hoping against hope that this had been a gift and not an accident. Every step in the street drew the father from the home to see if it was somebody looking for the money but nobody ever came to claim the gold.

The next night, Nicholas took another sack of gold and waited for another group of people to walk down the street. He joined with them again and was glad to see that the man had left the window open again. Feeling that his work for the Kingdom of God was not yet done, Nicholas approached the window with the group of people again. He thrilled to know that he was making a difference in the lives of the daughters and their father but he still did not want to be found out. He tossed the sack through the window where it landed again in the middle of the room. This time, however, when the sack landed the father didn't hesitate and bolted for the door. He already knew what was in the sack but he wanted to know who had again delivered such a wonderful gift. He gave chase to the cloaked figure and caught up with him. He spun him around and asked who he was that he should leave such a wonderful gift but the man only shook his head and said, "It wasn't me. Some man gave me this coin and his cloak to run when you came out of your door." With a subtle deception, Nicholas crept away into the night and again eluded the father.

The third and final night, the father had prepared and hid by the window. When the sack entered the open window, he would leap up and catch the man. Then, he would be able to thank and praise the man who had done such good for him. He waited as Nicholas approached but Nicholas had already detected the father's plan. He climbed to the top of the house and took the third sack with him. There was no smoke coming from the chimney and so Nicholas knew his plan would work. He dropped the third sack down the chimney where it landed with a triumphant thud. Before departing, the father yelled, "Who are you that I might thank you for these great gifts?"

Before he disappeared, Nicholas responded, "You have nobody to thank but God alone."The father did not try to follow after Nicholas for it was abundantly clear that he didn't want to be found out. He took the money and used it to provide a sizable dowry for each of his daughters and to ease the poverty that had gripped his small family. For this wonder--and others--Nicholas is well remembered and memorialized. May we, too, be generous gift givers.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

December 5 - Sabbas, Monk, Hermit, Uneducated Leader


Sabbas sat in silence in a sea of squabbling monks. Though they were talking about him he had little interest in their discussion--and it seemed that they had little interest in the fact that they were dissecting his strengths and weaknesses in front of him as if he wasn't present. He looked around bemusedly and shook his head in loving frustration. Most of these men--on both sides of the argument--had sought him out from miles away so that he might direct their spiritual paths. Indeed, some of them seemed to have taken the monastic path as a shortcut to power and influence--for these he prayed especially often--but others had taken Sabbas' path to find a life of prayer, peace, and service. Sabbas' mind drifted back to the years so long ago when he had lived the life of a hermit and he remembered them fondly. The conversation seemed to be becoming an argument about whether or not Sabbas was intelligent and educated enough to lead a group of monks. It had never been Sabbas' plan to be a leader or to be educated and so it didn't bother him that some accused him of being ignorant--what bothered him was the state of the hearts of those who judged him.

As this argument heated up, Sabbas' mind drifted back to the days when he would come into the monastery with an armload of willow baskets that he had woven. He'd silently drop them off and go and take his compensation. He had worked out a deal that he would weave ten willow baskets every week and give them to the monastery if the monastery would then give him a week's worth of food and enough willow branches to make ten more baskets. This deal worked for Sabbas and he had been doing it for some time. He had been a monk for many years and had eventually been granted the privilege of becoming a hermit and further devoting himself to prayer and service. Yet, this day he heard sad news: his own spiritual director had died in the week prior and there was debate as to who would replace him. Sabbas' mind was on his dear, departed friendbut this didn't keep the wheels of the monastic machine from running and soon a successor was selected and Sabbas knew that the time was coming for him to move on from the area. He moved to another cave farther away so that he might continue his life of prayer independent of the politics of the monastery.

Yet, when he moved others came after him because of his spiritual stature and maturity. Soon, the other caves and cells around him began to fill with people who were naming him as their spiritual director. Eventually, this new groupbecame disenchanted with their leader and began to demand a man with education and charisma. When this happened, Sabbas moved on to a different cave and, eventually, a new set of eager monks. This happened several times.

Now, it seemed it would happen again so Sabbas volunteered that he would leave and return to a private life of prayer and service in another cave far from here. He left but the Church was not keen to appoint another spiritual director immediately and insisted that Sabbas was their director. When Sabbas arrived at the cave, he was surprised to see a lion at the mouth of it. He suspected that this would be the last of him and that the lion would kill and eat him. Yet, the lion bowed its head and moved on--it ceded the cave to Sabbas as if directed to do so by divine mandate. When this story made its way back to the monks, some of them distorted and twisted it and took it to the patriarch. They pleaded with the patriarch to establish a new director because Sabbas had been killed by a lion. As they were finishing their arguments, though, they looked over and observed what had grabbed the patriarch's attention: Sabbas was sitting quietly and attentively listening to their description of his death. The patriarch ruled that there should be reconciliation and that the monks who disapproved of Sabbas because of his lack of education were in the wrong. Eventually, there was reconciliation--and in reconciliation are the seeds of redemption--for all of the monks and Sabbas.

Sabbas would go on to lead nonviolent protests against Imperial injustices. His protests gathered thousands of monks under one banner and behind one cause: their common Lord Jesus Christ and his furious love. Many years later--at the age of 93--Sabbas died peacefully among his fellow monks and friends.

Monday, December 4, 2017

December 4 - Barbara, Martyr, Refused to Concede

Barbara's father--Dioscorus--was away on business. At least that's what he had said. Of course, Barbara was convinced that he had left because of the seething anger that he was nursing. Barbara hadn't told him she was a Christian and was still very unsure when and how to do so. That wasn't what had excited his fury. Instead, she had refused his offer. Their relationship had been strained for years--ever since she became a Christian--and Dioscorus was feeling more and more embarrassed about his daughter at every turn. Luckily for him, there was no dearth of suitors looking to marry her. Dioscorus was a wealthy man and Barbara was beautiful--these two factors combined and made her a very attractive choice for a wife. Yet, when Dioscorus had finally found a man who he thought was best for his daughter, she had rejected him. Barbara had refused to marry a non-Christian but Dioscorus didn't know that was why. In his anger, he left Barbara at home to oversee the building of a new part of his estate.

Barbara wondered how she would explain her faith to her father while she oversaw the work the builders were doing. One day, they asked her to approve the design of the windows. "How many windows will there be?" she asked. They informed her that there were to be two windows in the bath-house they were building. Sensing an opening and a means to express her faith and create an opportunity to speak with her father, she insisted that they install three windows. Unknown to the builders, this was Barbara's attempt to represent the Trinity in a little thing such as windows.Knowing that she had contradicted her father's design, she also knew that this would result in his questioning her and lead to the conversation she had been seeking. When he arrived home--perhaps buoyed up with fresh hope for marrying his daughter so some other suitor--he was shocked to see his designs had not been carried out.

"What did the builders do, Barbara?" asked Dioscorus, "did they even consult the plans I left for them?"

"Yes, father, they did," replied Barbara, "but I told them to build three windows instead of two."

"Why would you do that, Barbara?" questioned Dioscorus as he felt the familiar tinge of anger flare up in the back of his mind. A conversation followed wherein Barbara admitted to being a Christian
 and Dioscorus insisted that she deny this and reject the faith of the hated Christians. Again she refused to concede to his wishes. He threatened her if she would not reject her faith but she stood firm in her hope. Finally, he said, "If you will not deny these Christian lies, then I have no choice but to hand you over to the prefect."

"As you wish, father," replied Barbara to the now shocked Dioscorus. He had assumed that she would bend and concede at his ultimate threat. After all, she knew well what was happening to Christians who ended up in the clutches of the Empire. Yet, Dioscorus had played the card and
 now was forced to follow through if he hoped to win back his daughter. Dioscorus dragged his daughter before the prefect and she was condemned to die. He turned to her and asked if she would not now reject her faith and live. She refused. The soldiers handed her father a sword and he looked at the prefect questioningly. The prefect indicated that if she would not deny her faith then it was Dioscorus' duty to decapitate her. Yet still she refused. Dioscorus' heart beat quickly as he insisted that she stop playing around and deny the things the Christians had taught her.

"I'll have to kill you, Barbara, if you refuse again" insisted Dioscorus.

"It's okay, Father, I love you. Do as you must." replied his daughter. He raised the blade and hesitated--hoping she would shriek our her denial in the scant moments of hesitation--and then swiftly decapitated his own daughter with a mournful wail. On that day, for fear of the Gospel of mercy and grace for sinners the Empire made both a martyr and a murderer in one family. Because of a refusal to concede by either, they both finally became what it was that their lives and actions were leading them to.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

December 3 - Francis de Xavier, Jesuit, Missionary, Work in Progress

"It's my right, Francis, to live as I please," said the noble man, "and I don't see why any savage heathen should have any right to say anything about it." Francis gawked at the man as arguments fought each other in his mind to see which one Francis would unleash upon the western noble. In India, it seemed that Francis spent most of his time battling the negative images of Christianity that the Europeans carried with them like their luggage and valuables. It was so easy for the poor of India to reject what Francis had to say because they had seen many men and women with the same attitude as the man who now stood before Francis looking pleased with himself and disgusted by the poverty around him.

"But you don't get it, friend," started Francis, "God loves these people, too, even if they aren't like us." Sure, it wasn't the best argument but it had taken some time for even Francis to arrive at it. He had been sent by his friend Ignatius of Loyola to be a missionary to the people of India. He had been called out of his worldly ambitions to serve the Church and seek a 
higher calling of love and mission work. When he arrived, he knew nothing of the Hindu, Buddhist, or Muslim religion and refused to have any conversation on the philosophy or thought of these religions. As his exposure to the people increased, however, he became enamored. The man walked with the poor and needy left to suffer and die in the streets because of an accident of birth. "God is calling us to care for these people,"continued Francis, "the Christian doesn't have the right to do as he or she pleases--we've given up that right." The man walked away--offended--and left Francis to wonder if there was any hope for salvation for foreign peoples if it seemed there was so little hope among his kindred.

Francis was criticized for caring for 
the poor instead of appealing to the noble-born and influential. It was argued that he could reach more by first reaching the far-reaching segments of society.Yet, Francis centered himself among the poor, needy, and untouchable portions of society because of his own increasing awareness of the calling upon his life to live as a servant of God's people. It had been a long time since he had been with Ignatius but he had learned well the power of prayer and active love for making a way for redemption in the hearts of men and women. Eventually, he moved on and traveled to Japan as a missionary. This time, he learned from his mistakes--he truly was a work in progress--and addressed the cultural and spiritual predispositions of the Japanese people from the beginning. He quickly set to work spreading the Gospel among the Japanese people and caring for those that the society wished would simply disappear. Eventually, he had a small group of converts who would meet regularly and were reaching out to those around them. Having established a foothold, he wrote letters and appealed for more missionaries. For many years, the Jesuits were able to send many missionaries to Japan because Francis had prepared a foothold and a community to welcome them.

But, it is true that Francis was a work in progress. He was instrumental in beginning the Goa inquisition and
 leading to the torture and death of many people in Southeast Asia. For this, Francis is not celebrated but mourned. He failed to see the consequences of his actions and the inherent evil in what he was doing. Francis' sin was one that so many of us have made: a willingness to crush and harm another to make myself feel better. From this sin, Francis and we must repent.

Near the end of his life he set out for China because of a growing passion for the people of that nation and indubitably looked forward to meeting the people and sharing the good news with them. On his way, he fell very sick and had to be dropped off before reaching the mainland.Throughout his life, he had subsisted on very little food so that he could feed more of the hungry and got by with little medical attention so that he could aid the poor. Finally, his years of devotion to the suffering had brought him into the place of the sick and the needy. He died on an island off the coast of China and did so by himself. He had gone on to prepare another place for missionaries to go and had died in his service to the Lord who calls all followers to take up their cross and follow him.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

December 2 - Maura Clarke and Companions, Martyrs, Victims of State Sponsored Death

Maura was bleeding profusely and knew that death was likely waiting for her after every short and gasping breath. Yet, she noticed that the men had already sprinted back to their van. Their guns were still warm from the bullet they had discharged and the death they had wrought in Maura and her sisters: Ita Ford, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel. It was odd to see five grown men sprinting from the defenseless, dying (or perhaps dead) nuns back to the safety of the van. They ran as if they expected some retribution to spring forth from the bloody wounds in the chests and heads of the women who had not even resisted.They turned up the radio as loud as it could go and peeled out--spraying gravel--as they fled the scene.Maura wondered if the radio was meant to silence the memory of atrocity and murder in their minds and wondered if they even knew what song was playing.

Maura had come to El Salvador because of Oscar Romero's plea for ministers of the Gospel to come and spread the Faith to people suffering injustice and oppression. Before coming to El Salvador, she had worked in the United States of America and Nicaragua providing assistance and pastoral care to the poor and needy. When Oscar had made his plea, Maura had been quick to respond and soon found herself serving her suffering Lord in the city of Chalatanengo. She had served alongside Ita Ford in a local parish. Upon returning from a conference in Nicaragua where she had reaffirmed her commitment to stay in El Salvador, she and Ita were picked up at the airport by Donovan and Kazel. They were tailed from the airport by a group of Salvadorian soldiers in civilian clothing. These men were soldiers trained to serve the interests of the State before even their own calling. To call them a "death squad" would be appropriate according to history but it would also grant them the privilege of rationalizing their atrocity--so, it is best to call them murderers. They followed the women to an isolated spot, stopped their vehicle, drug them from the van and began to beat them savagely. The women offered no defense and instead offered prayers and tears.

It was clear that the goal was to eliminate these "undesirables" in such a way as to make it look plausibly deniable. There would be no doubt that these women--who had helped take care of the enemies of the State in the Salvadorian Civil War--had been murdered but it would be plausibly deniable if they made it look like an act of chance not sponsored by the State. So, to make it look more barbaric--and truly to make it more so--the soldiers raped the nuns before shooting them and leaving them to die.In the logic of State sponsored death, one atrocity covers over another and allows the State to execute great evil under the cloak of denial and confusion.

When asked if she would leave the evils in El Salvador Maura had said that she would remain"to search out the missing, pray with the families of prisoners, bury the dead, and work with the people in their struggle to break out of the bonds of oppression, poverty, and violence." She had stayed and she had suffered for her commitment to Christ's calling and mission in the world. Finally, she died and was buried in Chalatanengo as she had desired. She would not forget the people of El Salvador and they would not forget her.

Friday, December 1, 2017

December 1 - Eligius, Goldsmith, Honest, Bishop


Eligius was a young man and so it was surprising that he had been selected for such a prestigious assignment: to craft a throne from gold for king Clotaire II. Eligius had become a goldsmith not because of a great personal desire to work within a trade renowned for its corruption but because his father recognized a certain amount of natural skill and talent in him for the work. Out of a desire to see his son succeed at his goals, Eligius' father had him apprenticed to a famous goldsmith in Limoges. Eligius had enjoyed his time there and had learned to enjoy the trade selected for him. By the time he left his master in Limoges, he felt as if this might be a good job for him even if it didn't feel like a calling. He had left to take a position under Babo in Neustria among the Franks. Babo was the royal treasurer for the Frankish kingdom and had the ear of Clotaire II. So, when Clotaire wanted a throne made from gold, Babo turned to his new goldsmith and informed him of his new task.

With little hesitation and less fear, Eligius took to his job and collected the amount of gold allotted to him for the work. Eligius was confused as to why so much gold had been given to him when his calculations suggested he didn't need nearly that much. As he sat in his workshop with the fabulous gems and large amount of gold, he decided to make the best throne he knew how to and simply trust that he had learned how to do his job to the best of his abilities. When he finished the first throne and had placed all of the precious stones on it, he looked again at the remaining stones and gold--there seemed to be enough for another throne of equal quality and weight. Not knowing what else to do, he made a second throne of equality quality and weight and presented both to Clotaire. At the time, it was the policy and practice of most goldsmiths to keep a large portion of the gold for themselves. They filed away pieces and burned up others so that when they had finished the work, they were all the more wealthy. Eligius kept no scrap of gold and, instead, presented king Clotaire II with two golden thrones comprised of every gem and ounce of gold given him to utilize. Clotaire was astonished at Eligius' shocking honesty. Eligius was rewarded handsomely for his craftsmanship and dependability and set a new standard for Frankish goldsmiths. Soon, Eligius had more gold than he ever could have stolen--gold on the edges of his robes, gold on his fingers and neck, gold in his pockets--and his reputation was cemented as an honest and dependable man.

Yet, it was then that Eligius suddenly seemed to understand calling. He had been given a gift of crafting and forging gold with the skill of an expert and artisan but this was not his only calling in life. Eligius felt a calling from the God he worshiped to serve him and give back from the abundance granted to him through his gifts. Eligius gave away his expensive clothing and was rewarded with more. When he was rewarded with more, he gave this away. The people could not understand why Eligius was so keen to give away what had been given to him but what they failed to understand was the passion burning in his heart: a passion to help the poor, sick, and needy. Eligius would pass through other professions--adviser, artist, diplomat--but always remained committed to his calling to take care of those in need and those outcast by society. As one who crafted what the society found valuable, Eligius was given many opportunities to free slaves and ransom prisoners.

Eventually, Eligius was elected priest and bishop of Noyon, France, and Tournai, Belgium. As a preacher, many were drawn to hear his homilies by his fame as a goldsmith and friend of the poor. His most exquisitely crafted sermon was the life he lived in full view of a culture that had made mistakes in prioritizing wealth over people. By forging and crafting gold, Eligius was able to right this injustice and lead many to the blessed redemption found by losing everything to gain the only thing that mattered.