Feast Day of St. Joseph – March 19th

The Dream of St Joseph (Rembrandt)

Saint Joseph is known by many titles: the Worker, the Carpenter, Patron of the Universal Church (in Catholicism) and Descendant of King David. Perhaps he should also be called Saint Joseph the Listener, the man who believed an angel messenger when told he would be earthly father to the Son of God. When warned of impending violence against the Holy Family, Joseph immediately obeyed instructions and fled to Egypt. And there, when he heard of Herod’s death did as the angel told him and returned to the Holy Land with Jesus and Mary. Avoiding the dangers of Bethlehem, they settled in the town of Nazareth in the region of Galilee. The Gospels describe Joseph as a tekton, the traditional name for a carpenter. It’s believed that he taught his craft to the young boy, Jesus.

Saint Joseph listened and obeyed because he first loved God. If we’re forced by circumstances to sometimes “take a back seat,” we should consider Joseph. Entrusted with the care and protection of Jesus and His Blessed Mother, Joseph remained faithful, steadfast, and anonymous. He is last mentioned in the Gospels frantically searching for the child Jesus, lost in Jerusalem. Our final glimpse of Joseph is of a confused and bemused father, confronted by the questions, “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” (Luke 2:49)

On Saint Joseph’s Day, let’s pray together for patience to listen, the grace to accept what we hear, and the wisdom of humility to recognize our own insignificance in the vastness of God’s plan.

Second Sunday of Lent

I keep thinking about spring cleaning, and how Lent is like spiritual spring cleaning. It’s a time of inwardly quieting ourselves so that we can examine the things in us that prevent a closer relationship with Jesus.

I’m refreshed by this particular time set aside to be with Jesus and to be known, especially to ourselves. When we accept our need, Jesus can then heal the wounded areas that block our relationship with Him and with others. Of course, only He can cleanse and remove those places, but by trusting and doing our part, we allow Him to make us clean and whole.

As we work on our “spring cleaning,” we may find fewer places to get snagged by temptation. The same way a mirror or glass needs the dust, and rough dirt polished smooth to prevent more dirt collecting, we need our souls to have the sharp edges planed. The more dust (or sin) that has been removed and cleansed, the more light will be reflected.

What a great way to prepare for Easter!

Feast Day of St. Gregory the Great – March 12

Saint Gregory the Great, Pope (Francisco Goya, 1746–1828)

Pope Gregory I, was a man of many virtues and accomplishments. Credited for organizing the first recorded large-scale mission from Rome, He also reached many through his prolific writings, more than any of his papal predecessors. During his papacy, his considerable administrative skills significantly improved the welfare of the Roman people.

In the the Middle Ages, Gregory was referred to as “the Father of Christian Worship” because of his devotion to the improvement of the Divine Liturgy. Pope Gregory was instrumental in the standardization of Western Plainchant, later renamed Gregorian chant in honor of his work and dedication.

Gregory was born in the city of Rome, around the year 540. His was a Patrician Roman family, wealthy and with close connections to the church. His father, Gordianus, served as a senator and for a time Prefect of the City of Rome. His mother, Silvia, and two paternal aunts attained sainthood, and his great-great-grandfather was Pope Felix III, making Saint Gregory’s family the most distinguished clerical dynasty of the time.

While contemporaries and historical biographers referred to him as Pope Gregory the Great (Magnus), he called himself “servant of the servants of God.” He lived a devout life, punctuated by humility and sensitivity of spirit in spite of a long list of human accomplishments. Plagued throughout life with chronic illness, he never allowed physical pain to interfere with the plan to which God called him. Not even imminent death deterred his sacred work.

Before he was thirty, Saint Gregory was made prefect of Rome but resigned the office after five years. He subsequently founded six monasteries on his Sicilian estate and served as a Benedictine monk at his home in Rome. An ordained priest, he became one of the pope’s seven deacons and served six years as a papal representative in Constantinople. He was then called home to become abbot, and at the age of fifty was elected pope. In spite of great secular and religious success, he stated that his happiest years were those spent as a simple monk, a beloved calling he sacrificed to serve God.

First Sunday of Lent

In recent days, many of my conversations contain the words, “What are you giving up for Lent?” What AM I giving up? Whatever it is, I’m fairly certain I’ll take it back on Easter Sunday. Let’s say I choose candy and sweet treats. Well, forty days from now, M & M’s will still look, feel, and taste like M & M’s and there’s no reason I shouldn’t eat one. Or two, maybe six. And while the residual “deny myself” will linger, past experience tells me it’s not long for this world.

But what if we change the words from giving up to letting go? I propose that Lent is more about letting go and Jesus is our example. Just read the Gospel of John, Chapters 14-17, the Farewell Discourse. Spoken to the eleven that remained with Him at the Last Supper, Jesus first tells them He’s going away to the Father but will send the Holy Spirit to guide them. He then bestows peace, and encourages them to love one another. He warns of persecutions to come and trouble they will encounter as true believers. Jesus prays for love, that his followers “may all be one as He and the Father are one” and that “the love with which the Father loves Him may be in them.”

In essence, Jesus prepares them for letting go of their human relationship with Him, the way of life they’ve traveled, and the closeness they’ve enjoyed so that a new dimension of faith can be born. He places the entirety of His earthly mission in their hands, these bumblers and sinners, and men of brave heart. He asks of his disciples that which is both simple and extremely difficult: let go of the familiar and hold on to the promises from the Greatest Friend they’ve ever known.

This Lent I hope to let go of a two-year breach in a relationship, caused by deep pain not within my grasp to understand. It will require more sacrifice than a cut back in sugar and more work than walking past the candy dish empty-handed. But I know it’s time for me to forgive and Lent is the grace-filled time in which to try.

Feast Day of Saints Perpetua, Felicity, and Their Companions – March 7

Community of JesusThe Passion of Saints Perpetua, Felicitas, and their Companions, one of the earliest Christian Texts, contains a first-person diary-like testimony of the young martyr, Perpetua.

Saint Perpetua was a well-educated, married noblewoman and mother.  Born to a pagan father and Christian mother, she chose to follow her mother’s faith and ignored the pleas of her father, who feared for her safety.

Saint Felicity was a Christian slave girl, imprisoned with Perpetua, and was herself expecting a child. Both free and slave alike were tortured and condemned to death. While incarcerated, Felicity gave birth to a daughter who was secretly taken away and cared for by Christian friends. Saints Perpetua and Felicity, Third Century martyrs, are among seven women and eight men commemorated by name in the list of ancient martyrs.

The passion narrative describes the arrest of five catechumens, that is, Christians being instructed in the faith but not yet baptized.  The five included three men, two of whom were free and one a slave and Perpetua and Felicity.  An additional man joined their group, one who voluntarily went before a magistrate and declared himself a Christian.  The six were tortured and executed at military games held in celebration of the Emperor Septimius Severus’s birthday.

Controversies surround the authorship of Perpetua’s Passio.  Personal accounts of female martyrs are rare and crucial documents accredited to female authorship even more so.   Modifications of her writing reveal the struggle of gender issues that were prevalent and the accepted definition and role of women within the church itself.  However, in this story of male and female, slave and free, we honor the courage and unbreakable unity of those called Christian. Martyrdom recognizes no class distinction and all are made one in the love of Christ.

The Approach of Lent: Ash Wednesday

March turns toward April. The temperature still swings below freezing at night.
On sunny days, I catch a hint of imminent Spring. The salamanders in the woods
have not yet crawled from their earthen homes in search of vernal pools. The
winter birds, buffleheads, mergansers, and eiders still swim the unfrozen pools in
the harbor. And the sun, somewhat a stranger these past few months moves
across the morning sky at a sharp angle, never quite reaching overhead. Last night
it snowed. It lilted down in the darkness and left the yard clothed in gold and lace.

In some ways, the passage of seasons corresponds to the ebb and flow of our
inner life as followers of Christ. We head into Lent this week. We are tired of
winter. It echoes the struggle with darkness in our lives, and hearts that forget
and grow cold. Again and again, we return and make a conscious effort to seek
His Light in our lives; to have our hearts rekindled by prayer, reading, silence.
The flame will glow again just as surely as our place on earth will lean into the sun
with the arrival of Spring.


I walk the path through the snow today. It’s soft under my shoes. Somewhat mysterious how it drifts down to cover the earth. I’m reminded of the verse:

Though your sins are as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow.

 

His Eye is on the Sparrow (and a Few Others)

There are many times when God catches my attention through nature. The other day I was dashing around cooking dinner in the late afternoon. I was planning on steak tips, and I thought I would grill them since the weather seemed to be cooperating. I left the grilling to the last minute since it usually doesn’t take very long. I went outside, removed the grill’s cloth cover and started to turn on the propane tank. To my great surprise, I discovered a large round nest of leaves sitting on the grill rack. The leaves had been trimmed down to size and the nest carefully constructed into a thick, cozy mound. I leaned down and quickly shut off the propane. A little mouse suddenly poked out of the nest, looked me over, then promptly fled to the edge of the rack. There it hung upside down by its back feet as it scrambled to exit.

I had a decision to make. Do I sweep away the leaves, clean the grill surface and cook my steak? Or do I accept that the little mouse, perhaps a mother raising young, needed protection for a few weeks.

Frankly, I was amazed at her considerable ingenuity. This tiny creature had created a warm dwelling as a home for her young, and a place of safety against predators and the bitter cold. Needless to say, I did not have the heart to sweep her away. I closed the lid, and put the cover over the grill, but not without taking a quick picture of those little beady eyes saying thank you.

 

Gratitude

Here at our monastery different ones of us take turns giving regular tours of our church to anyone who wishes to see it. In the winter months visitors are less frequent, and so on my one day a week of tour duty, I often have a few extra minutes to browse the bookstore for new authors. Last week I picked up a beautifully covered book by Ann Voskamp, not an unknown name, but one I haven’t read. Feeling a bit depressed that day, the sub-title “Reflections on finding everyday graces” caught my attention as something I’d like to find today!

Recently I’ve started the habit of starting and ending each day with things for which I’m grateful. I jot down 10 things I was grateful for from the day, especially on days I feel down. In Voskamp’s first reflection, Surprising Grace, she writes, “To bring the sacrifice of thanksgiving means to sacrifice our understanding of what is beneficial and thank God for everything because He is benevolent. A sacrifice of thanks lays down our perspective and raises hands in praise anyways—always.”

Laying down my perspective is the challenge for me-always. I know God to be only good, but some days, like this particular day, when something I really want doesn’t happen, I don’t want to remain grateful to God. I’d rather blame him, be angry at him and cry out why aren’t things different? Why can’t my perspective work? Laying down and giving thanks-always, doesn’t naturally come to practice. But in His grace he always answers us and is always patient with us.

Voskamp sums it up more eloquently, “We give thanks to God not because of how we feel but because of who He is.” Amen to that—and thank God for his never changing nature which always only has our truest and best intentions in mind.

Learning the Art of Sharing  

Yesterday a friend asked me if I had plans for this Summer, a lovely thought in the middle of all this ice and snow. As it happens, I am planning a bit of extra bell ringing for Summer. She had never heard of change ringing and I suddenly found myself attempting to explain bell ringers, without pictures, or any context. I suppose that is no small task, but I’m not sure I did a very good job explaining the art of ringing. In my head I had all the ins and outs of Grandsire Caters from practice last week (…one blow in 3rds then in to lead, dodge up to 5ths, dodge down to 4ths, etc….), meanwhile, as I notice her eyes glazing over and I hear the word “algorithms” coming out of my mouth, realizing, I ought to mention about bell towers, and handling and ringers pulling ropes attached to bells, and celebrating after services, and, and, and…so much to share! In the end, I’m not sure I quite got the picture across, but, I knew she could tell I was excited for Summer ringing plans, and that I really love ringing. Maybe it was a good explanation after all.

Church of the Transfiguration Angel in the Winter Sky from Cape Cod Bay

Feast Day of Saint Polycarp, Martyr and Bishop – February 23rd

St. Polycarp, Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna

There are few churches named after Polycarp (compared to other saints), and, although a celebrated martyr, he was not a subject of medieval art in the same way as Agnes or Laurence. However, Polycarp (a name meaning “much fruit” in Greek), may be one of the most important figures in the history of Christianity.

Born in 69 AD, as a young man he was a disciple of the Apostle John. Jerome tells us, John, before his death around the year 98 AD, ordained Polycarp as Bishop of Smyrna. Polycarp’s relationship with John makes him a valuable link to one of the last eyewitnesses to Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection.

He wrote one letter that still exists—to the church in Philippi. In it, he urges his readers to keep the true faith, citing other writings that are now in the New Testament.  He also warns against heresy, saying that “Everyone who does not believe that Jesus Christ came in the flesh is of the antichrist,” a direct reference to Gnosticism, which appeared in the church during his lifetime.

We know Polycarp was a man of great faith. When commanded to burn incense to the Roman Emperor (and renounce his Christianity), he said, “Eighty-six years have I served him, and he has done me no wrong. I will not deny my King now.” He willingly offered himself to be burned at the stake, letting the Roman officials know there was no need to strap him down, as he would submit to the fire. The story of Polycarp’s martyrdom was widely circulated among the early Christians and referred to by both Jerome and Ignatius.

Recently, the Biblical scholar David Trobisch has suggested that Polycarp was responsible for compiling the New Testament as it is today, as a response to the heresies in the church in the 2nd century. (This is much earlier than has been generally thought). The theory is still new, but it makes sense that a man of faith with access to the Gospels, the writings of Paul, and the Book of Revelation (as a disciple of John), would want to ensure the true faith, by compiling them into a “New Testament” for future generations.