Feast of St. Ambrose – December 7

Today we honor Saint Ambrose and his many contributions to our faith.  Known as the Father of Western Hymnody, he left a prolific number of song texts, many of them familiar to modern worshipers. He also promoted Antiphonal chant, a style in which one side of the choir answers in response to the other.

He was born c. 340 AD in Augusta Treverorum, in the Roman province of Gaul. A beautiful legend surrounds his infancy, here described:  While asleep in his cradle, a swarm of bees settled on his face. Without harming the child, they deposited a single drop of honey, then flew away.  His father, standing nearby, declared this a sign of Ambrose’s future eloquence, a man with a “honeyed tongue.” 

Ambrose followed his father’s example of public service. After studying literature, law, and rhetoric in Rome, he became the governor of Liguria and Emilia, which had headquarters in Milan.  Saint Ambrose served as governor until 374 AD, at which time he was named Bishop of Milan. Neither baptized nor a theologian, Ambrose vehemently refused the office. He hid in the house of a colleague, but a letter from the Emperor Gratian convinced the friend to release Ambrose from his protection.  Within a week, Ambrose was baptized, ordained, and consecrated as Bishop of Milan. A Nicene Christian, Ambrose as Bishop was at odds with the then-popular Arian heresy. Arians did not submit to the tenants of the Nicene Creed and therefore undermined the official church. 

 Ambrose, however, was not rigid in smaller matters and felt that liturgy was the servant of the people and the enhancer of worship.  He believed in following local liturgical custom, which prompted him to say, “When I am at Rome, I fast on a Saturday; when I am at Milan, I do not.”  Sound familiar? We introduced this doctrine into everyday life with the phrase, “When in Rome, do as the Romans do.”

The life of Saint Ambrose influenced and supported our faith.  He was generous, a consoler and instrument of hope, eloquent in word and manner, and a defender of truth. He died on April 4th, 397 at the age of 57, in the city of Milan. 

Among his beautiful texts we sing today are,  At the Lamb’s High Feast, Before the Ending of the Day, Holy God, Thy Name We Bless and Hark! A Thrilling Voice Proclaiming.

Feast of St. Nicholas of Myra – December 6

Nicholas was born March 15th, 270, in the city of Patara, Asia Minor, then part of the Roman Empire.  He died on December 6th, 343, at the age of 73 in Myra, Roman Empire. His family was Greek Christian and reportedly quite wealthy.  Because he lived during a turbulent time in Roman history, written records of St. Nicholas’ life are few and writings of his own were not preserved. However, the essence of this exemplary man survived, and he remains greatly loved throughout the world.

Even as a child, Nicholas was drawn to scripture and prayer. His uncle, also named Nicholas, was Bishop of Patara. He recognized the spiritual maturity and piety of his nephew, and ordained him first a reader and then priest while still a young man. He made a pilgrimage to Egypt and Palestine, and upon his return was appointed Bishop of Myra.

 When his parents died, Saint Nicholas distributed his inheritance to the poor and afflicted. Many legends surround his anonymous giving, and here is one example:  A man had three daughters, and insufficient money to provide dowries, so the sisters remained unmarried. Their father, feeling he had no choice, considered selling them into servitude.  St. Nicholas, learning of their plight, made three secret visits to their home, each time tossing a bag of gold coins through a window opening, one for each daughter’s dowry. 

Other such stories exist, evidence that Saint Nicholas was both gentle and kind, a generous man with a heart for the poor. He is Patron Saint of children, sailors, fishermen, merchants, the falsely accused, repentant thieves, and nations such as Russia and Greece.  

Feast of Saint Andrew – November 30th

Saint Andrew was a fisherman by trade, called to be an Apostle of Christ and martyred upon a cross form called crux decussate (X-shaped cross or “saltire.”)  His crucifixion took place mid to late 1st century at Patras, Achaia, Roman Empire. The saltire, also known as Saint Andrew’s Cross, is the central figure on the flag of Scotland, of which Andrew is Patron Saint.

Andrew, whose name in Greek means manly and brave, was born in 6 BC in the village of Bethsaida along the Sea of Galilee.  A faithful and uncomplicated man, he led an extraordinary life of missionary work. Some scholars believe that he preached along the Black Sea, as far as Kiev and on to Novgorod. Saint Andrew became Patron Saint of the Ukraine, Romania, and Russia. 

In the Orthodox tradition, Believers refer to Andrew as protokletos, or First Called.  This claim is substantiated in scripture, specifically John: 40-42: Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, was one of the two who heard what John (The Baptist) said. The first thing Andrew did was to find his brother Simon and tell him, “We have found the Messiah.” Then he brought Simon to Jesus.

Matthew’s scriptural account tells a slightly different story. We read in Matthew 4:18-20 the following:  As Jesus was walking beside the Sea of Galilee, He saw two brothers, Simon called Peter and his brother Andrew. They were casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen.  “Come, follow Me,” Jesus said, “and I will make you fishers of men.” And at once they left their nets and followed him.

Whether called first or simultaneously first with his brother Peter, Saint Andrew is an example of humility.  There is little record of his interactions with Jesus and the other disciples; however, we know that it was he who told Jesus about the boy with the loaves and fishes. Andrew was also one of four disciples who approached Jesus on The Mount of Olives to inquire about signs of Jesus’ return. Neither gregarious nor impetuous like his more famous brother, Peter, he served Jesus with a quiet and sincere heart. Tradition, rooted in ancient writings praise Saint Andrew for his great love of the Cross and his Savior.

Saint Andrew, Community of Jesus

To Commemorate the Feast of Christ in Glory November 24, 2019

From the Hymn—Christ, Whose Glory Fills the Skies

Christ, whose glory fills the skies
Christ, the true, the only Light,
Sun of Righteousness, arise,
Triumph o’er the shades of night;
Dayspring from on high, be near,
Daystar, in my heart appear.

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by Thee;
Joyless is the day’s return,
Till Thy mercy’s beams I see,
Till Thou inward light impart,
Glad my eyes, and warm my heart.

Visit then this soul of mine,
Pierce the gloom of sin and grief;
Fill me, Radiancy divine,
Scatter all my unbelief;
More and more Thyself display,
Shining to the perfect day.

       —Words by Charles Wesley, 1707-1788

      —Music by Conrad Kocher, 17786-1872

Christ in Glory Fills the Skies

Feast Day of Pope Saint Clement I — November 23

Clement is somewhat a man of mystery, his life’s story defined by fact woven within myth and legend.  We know he was born ca. 35 AD and was a disciple of Saint Peter with whom he closely identified theologically.  While some noted historians believe Clement was successor to Saint Peter as Bishop of Rome, others place him third in the line of succession. He is honored as the first Apostolic Father of the Church, and held office as Pope from 88AD until his death in ca. 99AD. Consecrated by Peter, he led an exemplary life and was a leader in the late first century church in Rome.

Saint Clement made clear his belief in obedience to church authority as established by the early apostles.  His only existing text is a letter known as the First Epistle of Clement. It was written to the Christians in Corinth, and was a rebuke to those responsible for the deposition of certain presbyters or bishops.  He exhorted the troubled congregation to repent and restore those who were unfairly removed from office. This letter was so respected that it was read at church in Corinth, along with Holy Scripture.

Thought by some to be the first to refine iron from ore, and to shoe a horse, Saint Clement is the Patron Saint of metal workers and blacksmiths.  He also was arrested while Pope, and banished from Rome to Pontus. There he was condemned to work in the marble quarries, alongside many fellow Christians and pagan convicts.  Clement was a source of comfort, strength and encouragement to the prisoners. A particular hardship was the lack of drinking water and a miracle is attributed to the intervention of St. Clement.  The story is told that one day, upon seeing the suffering of his fellow prisoners, he knelt in prayer. When he looked up, he saw a lamb on a nearby hillside. Clement walked toward the lamb, and struck the ground near its feet with his pickaxe, releasing a gushing stream of clear water.  This miracle converted many local pagans, and also sealed St. Clement’s death. The ruling Roman Prefect sentenced him to death by drowning. An old anchor was tied around his neck and he was thrown in the Black Sea.

Lamb mosaic from the apse of the Church of the Transfiguration

 

Feast Day of Saint Hilda of Whitby, Abbess November 18

Much of what we know about the intricacies of early English history comes from the writings of the Venerable Bede. Bede was born during the end of St. Hilda’s life. Much of what you’ll read here has come through Bede’s work.

Hilda was born in 614. She was baptized on Easter Day at age 13 near the present site of York Minster. Her birth and early years are somewhat complicated to follow, but in short, she was brought up in the court of King Edward. Her father died when she was young, and she was taken into the care of Edwin, who married Aerthelbuch of Kent. She was a practicing Roman Catholic and brought Hilda under her Christian influence.

At age 33, Hilda answered the call of Bishop Aidan of Lindisfarne in North Umbria to become a nun. She first resided at a convent on the Weir River, where she learned many of the Celtic traditions. She had not been there long when she was appointed abbess at Hartlepool Abbey. In 657, Hilda became abbess of Whitby Abbey and remained there until her death at age 66.

Bede describes Hilda as a woman of high energy and a skilled administrator and teacher. She was a landowner and employed many people to care for the sheep and cattle.  Woodcutters cared for the surrounding forest. Hilda gained a reputation for wisdom, and kings and princes sought her advice. She was also concerned and caring for the common folk. Hilda, a custodian and advocate of the beauty of words, is considered a patron saint of learning and culture, including poetry.

On a personal note, when I graduated from college, I taught at a Montessori school in Connecticut called Whitby. The school was founded by a group of Catholic women in the 1950s. They derived their inspiration from Whitby in England. At their opening ceremonies, they were presented with a stone from the Whiteby grounds (the stones surrounding the abbey contain unique fossils called ammorites; they look like little curled up snakes in the rock.) After a number of years, the stone was placed in storage and eventually lost.

One day I was out in the woods near my classroom. I was working with some students to convert an old dilapidated shed into a rabbit hutch. As we cleaned out the hutch, we found a strange-looking stone. I took it to the Headmaster, and lo and behold, it was the Whitby Stone. I was the hero of the day.

Feast Day of Saint Martin of Tours — November 11

One of the primary functions of our 100 plus foot Bell Tower is to signal our Community that it is time to gather together and worship the Lord. We are part of a centuries-old stream of Church tradition, calling the people of God to worship with the tolling of bells. 

 This tradition began in Monastic houses in the early centuries of Christianity. Saint Martin of Tours, whom we honor today, is credited as the first to build a (4th-century) tower with large bells like our own.  

Pagan turned Christian, soldier, monk, hermit, missionary, miracle worker and beloved Bishop of Tours, Martin was one of the first non-martyrs venerated as a saint. The key elements of Saint Martin’s spirituality are prayer, solitude, and sacrifice.  Through numerous acts of kindness and charity, one being the sharing of half his cloak with a cold beggar dressed in rags, Saint Martin became the embodiment of Matthew 25:36,40:

I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.  Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?”

The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

When next you hear church bells toll, think of Saint Martin, who remained a kind and loving soldier for Christ to his life’s end.

Bells in the Church of the Transfiguration Bell Tower — The Community of Jesus

 

 

A Meditation on Saints and Martyrs

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 

Yesterday’s celebrations of All Saints Day included 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

Inscription from an early Christian grave (3rd Century)

Celebrate All Saints’ Day with Poetry — Listen in

Celebrate All Saints’ Day by listening to selections from Paraclete Press poets Bonnie Thurston, Susan Miller, Kathleen O’Toole, and Scott Cairns, inspired by the lives of holy men and women through the ages, read by members of Elements Theatre Company. Click the title of any of the poems to start listening…

Scroll down and click the book titles to learn more about the poetry collections from Paraclete Press that contain each of these selections.

“Thanksgiving for Saint Thomas”
By Bonnie Thurston
From Practicing Silence

“Saint Francis and the Parsley”
By Susan Miller
From Communion of Saints

“Beyond Doubt”
By Kathleen O’Toole
From This Far

“Capable Flesh — Inspired by the Writings of Saint Irenaeus”
By Scott Cairns
From Endless Life

 

Angels in the Belfry

English style change ringing is an unusual activity. The basic mechanics of ringing a large bell are daunting but mastered with perseverance. However, placing oneself on the avenue of learning bell patterns – known as methods – and then agreeing to learn to ring them correctly can become a “down the rabbit hole” experience, causing one to exclaim with Alice: “curiouser and curioser!” Perfection in ringing is especially challenging in the presence of others attempting the same thing.

One simple “curious” example is that we are operating possibly the loudest musical instruments on the planet, but the degree of constant focus requires absolute silence both amongst the ringers and also the area around the ringing chamber. Signs reading “silence please” are quite common in change-ringing belfries, and in our particular case of a ground-floor level ringing room, there’s the phenomenon of passers-by tiptoeing by the tower during special rings (our Community of Jesus family have become very good sports in all of this.)

With all the oddities and difficulties, it can be a source of comfort and inspiration to recollect that our tower connects with God’s angels. The obvious visible connection is the hovering massive hovering presence of the Angel of the Church of the Transfiguration sculpted in bronze at the pinnacle. Just as important for us ringers, is the annual Feast of St. Michael and All Angels at the end of September. Ten years ago, this feast day was selected for our first public bell ringing. In honor of the decade remembrance this year, a group of us were able (with angels’ help!) to ring our first full peal in commemoration. Many of our family, well-versed in bell listening requirements (silence please!), crept up near the tower to support us.