A Meditation on The Conversion of Saint Paul – January 25

Acts 9:3-7 As he (Saul) neared Damascus on his journey, suddenly a light from heaven flashed around him. He fell to the ground and heard a voice say to him, “Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me?”

“Who are you, Lord?” Saul asked.

“I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting,” he replied. “Now get up and go into the city, and you will be told what you must do.”

I love the story of Saint Paul’s conversion. It has so much to teach us in our everyday lives. First of all, I’m struck with the mercy of God, that he would choose a man that was so vehemently against Christ. Paul, (or at that point, Saul) was sure he was doing the right thing by zealously persecuting Christians.

Secondly, I’m intrigued by Paul’s conversion process:

The Conversion on the Way to Damascus (Caravaggio, 1600)

 

First, there was light.

Then he fell to the ground.
Next, he heard the voice of Jesus.
He chose to believe the voice and say yes to it.

He was obedient to what Jesus said.
He fasted.
Temporarily blinded, he trusted others to lead him.
Baptized, he was spiritually reborn to solidify his conversion.

He received the strength of God, symbolized by taking food.

 

 

 

For us, in our daily conversion to be more like Christ, it is necessary that God’s light show us where we are not like Him. Often, we need to fall from the places where we think ourselves better than our neighbors, and therefore can’t love them the way Jesus wants us to. It takes hearing the voice of the Holy Spirit to convict us and to believe and say yes. Fasting from those places that distract us from going on our own “Damascus road” of His will can be so helpful. I have found that when the light of something about myself is very bright, I can hardly see straight, and I experience a moment of blindness. It is so helpful when I have a trusted friend to help lead me and help keep me on the way I hope to stay on! And finally, when there is an unwanted habit in me that has shifted, I’m barely aware that it has changed. I realize that I have more joy, and feel more centered in Jesus. What a wonderful testimony the story of Paul’s conversion is for all of us!

 

Feast of St. Agnes – January 21

St. Agnes was one of the most celebrated saints of the Middle Ages. Saints Jerome, Ambrose, and Augustine all preached sermons about her exemplary life.  She died somewhere near the age of thirteen. We wonder how a child could be so commendable.  She hadn’t been tried through years of testing or proven through accomplishment.  Her parents were well-to-do Romans of the 4th century, so she would not have suffered poverty or neglect, and may even have been spoiled.

Agnes did not become a saint by how she lived, but by how she died.  She became a Christian in a time of persecution, and held on tenaciously to her faith, despite all odds.  In today’s language, she knew who she was, what she wanted, and would not let anyone, or any situation, push her off-course.  She was one of the “overcomers” in Revelation 12:11 who “loved not their lives unto death.” The fact that she was only 12 (or 13) is awe-inspiring.

Her difficulties began when she spurned the son of a Roman prefect.  When he found out she was a Christian, he denounced her.  Many attempts were made to force her to give up her faith, and she rejected them all.   According to accounts, she went to her death happily knowing she had remained true to herself and her God.  The year was 304, during the last wave of Christian persecution under Diocletian.  Two years later, Constantine became the new Roman Emperor.  In 313, the Edict of Milan was issued, which ended all the persecution of Christians in the Roman Empire.  Who knows how the well-known story of Agnes’ bravery may have influenced this change.

The name “Agnes” is like the Latin agnus, which means lamb.  She is often portrayed in art holding or alongside a lamb.

St. Antony of Egypt – January 17th

St. Antony Abbot of Egypt holding a rosary and a staff, with an angel – from the Book of Hours of Simon de Varie

St Antony of Egypt, also known as Antony the Great and Abbot Antony, lived between 251 and 356. He was not the first Christian monk, but he is considered to be the Father of all Christian Monasticism and his writings are regarded as the first monastic rule. Most of what we know about him today is from the 4th century manuscripts of St Athanasius the Great.

Antony was born into a wealthy Christian family and inherited the family fortune at the death of his parents when he was just 20 years old. He heard the words of Jesus to the rich young ruler speaking directly to him: “If you want to be perfect, go, sell what you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasures in heaven; and come, follow Me.” (Matthew 19:21). After providing for his younger sister, he sold everything, gave the proceeds to the poor, and set out for the desert, where he lived in total solitude for the next 20 years. There he fervently prayed, fasted, rarely slept, and faced many fierce attacks and temptations from the devil, fighting physical, as well as spiritual, battles with evil spirits. Eventually word of Saint Antony’s holiness spread and drew crowds of pilgrims to seek him out and without trying to organize a community, he soon had a following of monks. Under the persecution of the Roman Emperor Maximinus in 311, Antony offered himself as a martyr, but he was so respected that he was refused! Although considered basically unlearned, Antony was invited to participate in the Council of Nicaea and he was influential in stopping the Arian Heresy.

Despite his extreme bodily asceticism and his intense desire to die for his faith as a martyr, Antony was strong of body and of soul and lived to be 105 years old!

The Bells at Midnight

Ringing in the New Year is always a joy once you get there, but sometimes it’s so cold and wind windy, I’d rather stay cozy in my bed with the covers snug around my neck. So what inspires me to bundle up and trudge to our tower to ring at midnight on December thirty-first? Tradition! It’s a once a year gathering of our Band of Ringers to welcome in the New Year. It brings us together to remember what the past year brought, individually and corporately. We all have joys and sorrows, loss of loved ones, the birth of new little ones and things we found challenging, things we overcame and problems we have yet to master. So, with all our differing emotions, we shake off the old and embrace the new. We ring whether we’re happy or sad. We need to keep our tradition.

When I was in Croatia after the war in the Balkans, I was helping roof houses in a small, devastated village. I experienced a beautiful thing when the villagers went to bring home a Bell for their church that had been taken from them. That bell was carried home on the back of a horse-drawn wooden cart. Men had traveled through the night to make this happen. Flowers decorated the bell, adding to the beauty of the sight. Flowers adorned the entrance to the church as well. Everyone in the town gathered to sing and worship, as the bell was hung where it belonged.

Tradition! Let us ring and make a beautiful noise to celebrate life, joy and new beginnings. Wishing you a blessed New Year!

Quarter Peal

This year we decided to usher in The Vigil of the Nativity (Christmas Eve) with a Quarter Peal of Plain Bob Triples. Suffice it to say that a quarter peal is about one hour of non-stop ringing with no repeated patterns (the bells – in this case eight – regularly change their order). Before any type of Peal is rung it is publicized as an “attempt.”

As with team sports, bell ringing is no exception to the precarious and unpredictable nature of teamwork. Is bell ringing a microcosm of life? I (and I suspect others) approached the quarter peal with the usual mantra of, “I’ve got to get this right” and, “everything depends upon me so don’t mess up.” As we progressed into the peal, we realized teamwork was essential, so this mantra was transformed to, “we’ve got to get this right” or, “everything depends on helping each other.” With mutual encouraging looks and confident verbal corrections from our Conductor, we managed to correct many wrong turns and bring our ship safely into harbor.

At the close of our Quarter Peal, we all heaved a sigh of relief that our “attempt” became a reality. No matter how many times we were on the brink of collectively losing our path, we had made it through to the end.

Feast Day of St. Stephen – December 26

Martyrdom of Saint Stephen by Giovanni Andrea De Ferrari (1598-1669)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Good King Wenceslas looked out

On the Feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even

The day after Christmas is the Feast of Stephen. I discovered this first through curiosity-wondering why “Good King Wenceslas” was considered a “Christmas” carol. The king in the song gives gifts to the poor, but the Nativity is never mentioned. But, of course, St. Stephen’s Day is the day after Christmas, so the king is responding in the spirit of the Christ child. St. Stephen himself followed closely after Jesus, in his life and in his martyrdom. The Apostles chose him as a man “full of the Holy Spirit and wisdom” to oversee the distribution of food to widows. He was selected to bring peace to a situation that was dividing the disciples – that one group of widows was favored over another. Not only did he serve tables, but the Book of Acts tells us he preached, and “did great wonders and miracles among the people.” Acts, Chapter 7 recounts one of the greatest sermons ever preached. This same sermon led to his martyrdom.

As he was being persecuted, [Stephen] looked up steadfastly into heaven, and saw the glory of God . . . And said ”Behold, I see the heavens opened, and the Son of man standing on the right hand of God. (Acts 7:55-56)

And they “cast him out of the city and stoned him” (Acts 7:58). Yet, Stephen’s death was not the end of his influence. After his death, persecution forced the disciples to leave Jerusalem, causing the message of Jesus to spread far and wide. And one of the witnesses to his death was a young man named Saul, who although he agreed with Stephen’s persecutors, became Paul, one of the greatest teachers in the history of Christianity. Stephen’s death, no doubt, was the seed of Paul’s conversion.

 

Advent III

Living the Christian life can be like hanging onto the pommel of a bucking horse. This is often true in Advent. Advent is a time to prepare our hearts for the coming of Jesus at Christmas. But in our culture, it is also a time of much activity and pressure– not only in preparations for Christmas and giving to others, but because many jobs include tasks that have to be done “by the end of the year.”

We may want to give more time to quiet and reflection, but it doesn’t always work out.  Then, trying to be peaceful becomes frustration and anger at not having it. I have experienced this many times but knew there must be a better way to prepare our hearts in the midst of activity.

My answer came suddenly from one line in an Advent reading by Austin Farrer: “We do not ascend to God, he descends to us.” This is a radical statement, but it is the Gospel. I do not have to perform, I do not have to “rise to the occasion,” work my way into peace, or even get in the right Christmas spirit. Ascending to God is not the Advent message. To prepare my heart, all I can do is to come as a little child, admitting I can’t do any of those things myself. Then I’ll be ready to invite him in, as God descends to us, as a vulnerable baby, accepting us just as we are.

 

All Saints Day – November 1

I recently saw a film about elderly D-Day soldiers returning to the beach at Normandy to honor those who fought and died alongside them in World War II. It was moving watching them share memories, tears, and gratitude for the sacrifice of their friends. “All Saints Day” is this kind of remembrance for the church.

The first Christian martyrs were honored at their gravesite on the anniversary of their death and Saints Days developed from this tradition. In those early years, I imagine there were eyewitnesses of the event, with tears, and gratitude for a faithful witness (“martyr” comes from the Greek word for “witness”). Then, after the first generation, stories would have been passed down. Eusebius, in the 4th century, wrote about the heroic death of Blandina, a slave girl 200 years earlier in Gaul (now Lyons, France). Although she was described as frail, Blandina had suffered such extreme tortures in the Roman coliseum that the crowds were “astonished at her endurance.” Eusebius goes on to say: But the blessed woman, like a noble athlete, renewed her strength in her confession; and her comfort and recreation and relief from the pain of her sufferings was in exclaiming, “I am a Christian, and there is nothing vile done by us.”1

Today’s celebrations of All Saints Day include all Christians, martyrs, and non-martyrs, known and unknown. But it is an excellent time to remember all who have died for the faith throughout Christianity, particularly those who are persecuted and dying in parts of the world today.

1 Eusebius, Church History, Book V, #19. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/250105.htm

 

Dolphins

A phrase leaped out at me during the Lauds service on Sunday: “Dolphins and all sea creatures, bless the Lord.” It is from “The Canticle of the Three Young Men” (better known as Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego who went into the fiery furnace) in the Book of Daniel, Chapter 3.

How do dolphins bless the Lord? I know how they bless me. Their playful dance-like movements make me smile. Their acrobatic high jumps out of the water make me gasp. I was delighted when I saw three swim offshore recently in perfect synchronization. I have no trouble believing that God, the Creator, is blessed by his creatures the dolphins.

What about us?  What can I do to bless the Lord?  I used to think it was being good, doing the right thing, producing the perfect widget or piece of art. (And then, realizing this was impossible, gave up entirely). I have something to learn from dolphins. Like the lilies, I suspect they neither “toil nor spin,” and I doubt if any of them secretly wants to be a unicorn or a hippo. They are creatures of God, content to swim in the ocean, unaware they give joy to bystanders like me, in a boat or offshore. If I can be me, without pretensions, freely living my life as it unrolls before me, I can stand before a loving God, who knows all and sees all, and expect to bless, as I am being blessed.

HOPE

I used to think “hope” was something to say when there was nothing else to say–“I hope it will be better,” or “I hope you are okay.”  But real Hope is a powerful force, and the path to living in joy. It is choosing to believe that, no matter the outward circumstances, a loving God is ultimately in control.

This is what I have noticed about people who choose Hope in spite of difficult circumstances. They are Humble, because they don’t believe that everything depends on them. They are Open to others, not bothering with self-protective walls. They are Personable — easy to talk to and be around because they are not trying to prove anything. And they are Efficient — in the moment and not distracted.

Lord, help me to choose Hope, knowing that whatever I face today, I can trust you in all circumstances and enter into joy.