Yes, technically we are no longer in Easter Season but for believers, it is Easter every day. Listen all the way through – it only gets better and better!
“Since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us rid ourselves of every burden and sin that clings to us and persevere in running the race that lies before us while keeping our eyes fixed on Jesus, the leader and perfecter of faith.” (Hebrews 12:1-2)
As I indicated in my last post, part of my repentance for the sins of racism, my own and that of my people, is to learn more about Black Catholic saints and to pray for their intercession. I will share here some of what I learn, providing links to full stories when possible. (Rather than posting many new posts, I will edit this article to add new saints as I discover them – so please come back to check them out!)
A cloud of witnesses
6.2.2020 Today, I learned about St. Benedict the African who was born to parents who were slaves, captured in Africa and brought to Italy. Despite being a Black man in 16th century Italy, uneducated and illiterate, he became a Franciscan, occupying roles ranging from cook to Master of the Friary. His story may be found here.
St. Benedict of Africa, please pray for us that we might develop the humility to seek and find holiness in every person we encounter. May we come to cherish the great gifts God has given the Church through the people of Africa. Amen.
6.3.2020 Today is the feast day of St. Charles Lwanga and companions, a group of 19th century young African men who were martyred in what is now Uganda. Charles was but 26 when he was burned alive at the order of the king of his country. He had been baptized less than a year earlier and yet protected other young men aspiring to the Faith from the ritual sexual abuse the king wanted to inflict on them. (I have chosen to direct you to Wikipedia for his story. Sadly, too many Catholic sites make it sound like Charles was protecting their “chastity” which I think is misleading.) His story may be found here.
Pray for us, O holy Martyrs of Africa, led by Charles Lwanga, that we might have the courage to stand up for what is right and to protect the vulnerable from mistreatment, regardless of the cost to ourselves. You freely followed the way of our Savior in sacrificing yourself out of love for God and your brothers. May we learn from you what it truly means to be a Christian, a follower of Christ. Amen.
6.10.2020 I am currently reading a biography of St. Josephine Bakhita, patron saint of Sudan and survivors of human trafficking. She was born in Darfur around 1869 and was kidnapped by Arab slave traders when still a very young child. She experienced great cruelty at the hands of a number of owners and was forcibly converted to Islam. She no longer knew her own given name or native language. She ended up in Italy and, while “temporarily” staying with the Canossian Sisters, she learned of Christianity, embracing the faith and later becoming a member of their community. Those who knew her withnessed her holiness and she was known for her gentleness and calm demeanor. More details of her story may be found here
St. Bakhita, pray for us that we might learn the way of peace, never losing faith in the midst of hardship. Strengthen our resolve to eliminate all that enslaves our brothers and sisters throughout the world, as well as all that enslaves us from within. May our lives reflect the peace that can only come from God. Amen.
Black lives matter.
First and foremost, I must say this. Yes, all lives matter but not all lives have been denied their human dignity in America the way Blacks lives have been.
Starting with the enslavement of Africans by our ancestors to the murder of George Floyd by a white police officer, Black lives have born such denigration, insult and disregard that the rage can no longer be contained. Our society is literally exploding before our eyes.
It has been a long time coming.
However, the 2016 Presidential election was a turning point. To all outward appearances, many people were disappointed about the results as always happens with elections. But many of us, of all racial hues, knew in our hearts that something very serious had happened when Donald Trump was deemed the winner of the 2016 election.
We went from having a Black president who was a calm, intelligent and articulate leader to having an openly racist and sexist White man who has no idea how to lead a nation during peaceful times, muchless during times of crisis.
It wasn’t just about whether we had a Democrat or a Republican in the White House. It was a referendum of sorts, a green light to disrespect and degrade people of color with impunity. (Women too, of course, but that is another article).
And it was clear that he had a substantial base of supporters who didn’t simply tolerate this but liked this about him. Humiliated by four years of leadership by an African American president, there was bound to be a backlash.
But it wasn’t just the obvious racists, the skinheads, the KKK, the white supremacy groups that wanted to see white rule restored, but, sadly, a substantial proportion of the Christian community commonly known as the “religious right”.
While many may argue the religious right was drawn to Mr. Trump for other reasons, e.g. his supposed “pro-life” stance, one did not have to look hard to see that candidate Trump did not talk about, much less live, the Christian message about the sanctity of human life.
If not for a conscious or unconscious desire to restore white rule, how could Christians of good faith decide to turn a blind eye to Mr. Trump’s unapologetically sinful ways?
I know that I am chancing offending some of my already small readership by make such a political statement on an otherwise spiritually oriented blog. But I simply cannot remain silent.
Black lives matter.
It is going to take a great deal of change on multiple levels of society to address all of the attitudes, injustices and violence against people of color. It will take even longer for any trust to be rebuilt between people of color and the white people who truly respect and value the diversity of the races.
I am taking three actions now, small actions because I am but one person with little power or influence.
- I just took the first step and sent a message online to Mr. Trump, telling him to step down. (Of course, I don’t believe that he will heed my counsel, but that is no reason to remain silent.)
- Tonight I am posting the following sign on my front door to make it clear where I stand:
- I am going to pray. I am going to research the Black saints of the Church, especially those who were former slaves, and ask them to pray for us – to pray that, through their intercession and the mercy of Christ our Savior, we might learn to truly repent of our sins against people of color and come to love and respect the goodness inherent in every human life.
Black lives matter.
May God have mercy on us all.
Although I am posting this late – I had to wait for the paint to dry – the Eastern Church celebrates today the Sunday of the Myrrh-bearing Women.
In this image, we have (from l. to r.), Mary Magdalene, Johanna and Mary, the holy Mother of God. And then, of course, the angel showing them the empty tomb with the burial cloths that once wrapped the Savior’s body.
You may wonder how I know the names of the women in the icon. I wonder too. I simply recognize them by the expressions of their faces. As I have often not known that I was going to write something, so have I been surprised at times by what my paint brush leaves behind.
Some may also wonder about the presence of the Virgin at the tomb. The western (Catholic) perspective has generally been that we do not know whether Jesus appeared to His mother after the Resurrection but a pious belief is held by some that He appeared to her first.
However, an alternate view is that the Theotokos was indeed at the tomb with the other women who brought spices to finish the burial process. After all, why would she not have gone? Given that Scripture tells us that she stood at the foot of the Cross, we know that there was no physical impediment to her being with the others.
Again the pious notion might be considered that she knew in her heart that death had no power over Him and therefore there was no further need to tend to His body. She did not need to see the empty tomb to believe. If she was there, would not Scripture have told us?
Some have explained this omission by pointing out that the evangelists’ intent was to make known the existence of eyewitnesses to the empty tomb and the testimony of a mother might be regarded with suspicion.
There are many other hypotheses that have been debated through the ages but none of them really interest me.
As I am drawn further into iconography, I am increasingly aware that the truth an icon conveys is not the historicity that preoccupies our world today. Instead, it proclaims a mystical truth, a truth that is at the heart of the Christian faith.
Whether or not the Theotokos went to the tomb is not the point. The point is that she, like the other faithful women, knew. She knew and believed that her Son was the Christ, the Anointed One, risen from the dead.
The icon proclaims this with her presence. At the same time, her face portrays her humanity. Tired and worn, she was still a mother who witnessed the brutal execution of her Son.
She is one of us. She knows suffering, she knows death. Her heart is pierced with a sorrow beyond telling.
At the same time, having joined her suffering to that of her Son, she is transformed with Him to know what it means to be fully human, to share in the divine life.
Our world is broken and suffering, now on a scale larger than many of us ever imagined we would see.
Let us stand with our Mother, bringing all of our sorrows and fears.
Together, let us gaze at the empty tomb and believe.
He is risen.
He is risen indeed!
Alleluia, alleluia, alleluia!
Brothers and sisters:
I received from the Lord what I also handed on to you,
that the Lord Jesus, on the night he was handed over,
took bread, and, after he had given thanks,
broke it and said, “This is my body that is for you.
Do this in remembrance of me.”
In the same way also the cup, after supper, saying,
“This cup is the new covenant in my blood.
Do this, as often as you drink it, in remembrance of me.”
For as often as you eat this bread and drink the cup,
you proclaim the death of the Lord until he comes.
1 Corinthians 11:23-26
I remember a number of times over the years when a good friend and I had a sort of running joke. It was, at best, a wry humor, but one befitting the season of Lent.
Both of us have always been serious observers of this beautiful season of repentance. However, there were times when enough difficult things occurred unbidden that it was more than enough to get through them without adding some additional act of asceticism. As the saying went, “I didn’t have to go looking for penance; penance came looking for me!”
There was an important lesson that came with this experience: the most profound sacrifices in our lives are not the ones we choose. They are given to us to embrace and offer back to God as gifts born of broken, humbled hearts. These are, of course, the gifts God will never spurn.
Although I have followed the traditional fasting rules of the Church (which are not difficult in the west), I find that the fasts that have been given to me have often been more meaningful. An example from nearly 40 years ago comes to mind.
I was in my mid 20’s and working at an nontraditional community counseling service. In addition to the professional services offered, we had a drop-in lobby with free coffee that was well patronized by the mentally ill of the inner city streets. We had a staff-only area but just a curtain of a door to separate the spaces.
One day, I went to retrieve my lunch only to discover that someone had stolen it! And, while it would have been possible to come up with something to eat, I saw it as an opportunity to fast. I had so much and they have so little. What is one lunch not eaten?
Later, John, the prime suspect for the lunch-theft, committed suicide while hospitalized in a psychiatric unit. As I think back on him – for I still remember him – I hope my lunch brought a little comfort to his otherwise tortured life of mental illness and life on the street.
Yesterday, a different sort of fast was asked of me – a fast from my comfort zone. I had to pick up a medication refill at my local pharmacy. More times than not, as I approach the entrance there is someone waiting to ask me if I can spare some change. I confess that I often want to duck and pretend I don’t see them. Yesterday, my unspoken thoughts were, “It’s cold out. I have a migraine. Can’t I just walk into the store without being bothered?”
I fought this temptation as I saw a tall, slender man standing near the door. His clothes were mismatched layers. His braids were unkempt and a remnant of snot was frozen to his nose. When he made the anticipated request, I stopped, introduced myself and asked him his name. “Maurice”, he mumbled. I asked him, as I often ask people, what kind of troubles he was having to be in this position. His response, a single word: schizophrenia.
I could see in his face, in his manner of dress, that he was telling the truth and I gave him something. As I walked into the store, I immediately regretted not having given him more. He had disappeared by the time I left. I can only hope that my little donation to his life eased the pain of his poverty and confusion. I am sorry, Maurice. I should have given you more. I have so much.
So many of these unsought-after fasts are so mundane that they may hardly be noticed as such. Food not eaten because of nausea or work crises that leave no time. Plans cancelled when migraines, patient needs or other unavoidable hassles get in the way. I have even been given fasts from icon painting, as time or energy runs out or God sends me off in another direction.
What seems important is that I recognize these as opportunities to fast, opportunities given to me by God to embrace the way of the Cross, accepting His way over my way. When so embraced, each little sacrifice becomes a gift I can offer my Father, uniting it to the gift of Christ our Savior.
Do I always do this? Do I recognize these opportunities as such? Sadly, most of the time I do not. But I am on a journey and each step offers a lesson. If I miss the message, it will be given again and again until I get it. God sets no limits on His invitations to love.
Amidst these minor challenges, some Lenten seasons I encounter much greater calls to fast, the kind that show me how stingy were the offerings I had chosen for myself.
Lent this year has been one of those times.
Such an unlikely fast. I would never have anticipated being asked to fast from the Sacraments, of all things. Nor would I have guessed that I would be called upon to fast from the company of my community, my colleagues, my friends, from their handshakes and hugs.
Still, unlikely as it seems, each dimension of these restrictions imposed from without are fasting opportunities from God, to be embraced and returned to Him. The evil which is the pandemic is redeemable in my own heart – in all of our hearts – when we embrace this fast out of love for God.
It is easy to forget how many people routinely experience these deprivations when infirmities confine them to private dwellings or nursing homes. Or when they live under oppressive governments that restrict their freedom of movement and worship. Or when war or gang violence makes them refugees, disconnected from any security they ever had.
It is easy to forget the Johns and Maurices of this world and to avoid helping them carry the crosses they never asked for. It is so much easier to choose my own sacrifices, to give up some trifle, to say an extra prayer or read another book.
But it is in the Cross of Christ – and only there – that suffering becomes sacrifice and takes on meaning as an act of love.
His way, the way of the Cross, is not something I can follow only when it is fits into my plans. I do not get to choose my fast, my sacrifice, my cross.
There is but one choice for me to make: will I follow?
As weak and beset by sin as I am, there is only one possible response to this question. This is what it means to be wounded by love (Songs 2:5).
(Dear Readers, my prayers for your physical, emotional and spiritual health during these difficult times. Prepare for lighter posts from this blog! April is National Poetry Month in the US which means a poetry contest is in the making! No experience or talent required and there will be prizes for all. More to follow.)
It has been quite a while since I posted anything here. I’ve been too busy painting icons 🙂
But the time has come for words – strong words.
Last week, the decision was made by the Catholic bishops of Ohio to temporarily lift our religious obligation to attend Sunday Liturgy. This move was made, of course, as part of the worldwide effort to stem the spread of COVID-19, the highly contagious and deadly coronavirus. We could attend if we wanted to but people at risk were especially encouraged to stay home.
Today, late in the afternoon, the bishops decided to temporarily suspend all public celebrations of the sacred liturgy throughout the state.
Without a doubt, this is the work of the evil one.
By no means am I suggesting that the bishops were acting inappropriately. On a human level, they made a sensible decision to try to protect us – as much as it is in their power to do so.
But who is it that creates pandemics? People, in their fear and suffering, often assume that it is God. Haven’t we been told that He is the Creator of all things? Who could have created the viruses (not to mention the bacterias) if not Him?
To understand this, we must return to the story of Creation for it tells us many truths.
In the beginning, as the Spirit, the breath of God (Ruah) swept over the waters, the Word was spoken. All things were created through Him and for Him. The love within the Trinity gave birth to all things and everything born of this love was pronounced good.
Hence, we know that all of God’s creation was good from its inception. Are viruses then good?
On the level of science, we do not know how viruses came about, though their origins appear to be ancient. So insidious are they that they left no footprint in history that we can study. While considered “living”, viruses seem to be a perversion of life, existing only to reproduce and yet able to reproduce only through parasitism.
And we know who has introduced the perversions we see in Creation. It was not God.
While sometimes obvious, it is often not easy to see how sin leads to such tragedies as pandemics. We know the evil one sows the seeds of sin in us – but how does this lead to illness? Is it our fault?
I am not suggesting, of course, that succumbing to illness is the fault of any individual nor is the development of a pandemic the work of any one generation. It is more the fault in our nature that has grown and developed through hundreds of centuries during which time the seeds of the enemy have grown.
We were given dominion over the earth, to be the loving caretakers of all of the life in it. Need I say that we have not done a very good job? With the perversion which is evil embedded in us, we have brought the planet with us into our death-producing state of sin.
Were it not for Christ our Savior, our situation would be beyond hope. Not only do we kill each other with our rages and our wars but we draw the rest of creation with us.
Yet Christ has given us the antidote: Himself. He has given us Himself in His life, death and resurrection. He has given us Himself sacramentally in Eucharist, the bread from heaven, that nourishes us unto eternal life.
And so now the enemy thinks he can starve us out. Create enough suffering, enough fear – then take away our Food – surely we will despair and defect to his side.
But he is wrong.
Even though I participated in the Sunday liturgy yesterday, something moved me to go to my church for Mass again this evening. I had not heard the announcement this afternoon but I sensed that time was growing short.
I would have expected myself to feel sad or dejected upon hearing of the suspension of public liturgy but that is not the case. Receiving Him one more time was immensely joyful, as His love came crashing into my heart.
In a new way, I realized that He is here to stay, whether it be weeks or months before I can commune again.
The sacraments are a great gift – far greater than we understand. I need them – but God does not. I will hunger for Him but I know He will continue to feed me. He will not leave my heart.
And my hunger will make me desire Him even more.
The enemy can indeed wreak much havoc upon us but we must not be afraid. He cannot win. The victory has already been won by Christ Jesus our Lord.
Take courage, my friends, and do not be afraid. Let us pray for each other daily that we might be strong in battle, strong in the certainty that our Savior’s love will conquer all.
All praise and glory to Him.