St. Peter & St. Paul, Apostles
St. Peter and St. Paul, whom we celebrate today, shared several things.
Both men had utterly life-changing experiences of the crucified-and-risen Jesus. This Jesus spoke to both men individually and personally. Each received a calling that only Peter and only Paul could fulfill.
Both men were tasked with stewarding the ancient traditions of their ancestors and faithfully making meaning of that stream of wisdom while at the same time living from the heart of a new awareness: that their Lord and Messiah had, in their experience, radically changed the course of that history. This new awareness was subject to misunderstanding and rejection; and so were they.
Both men were asked, repeatedly, to adapt to circumstances they could never have imagined; to adopt a new perception of how God communicated with God’s people; and to embody a new paradigm for gathering and nourishing the community of God. The limitless boundaries of this community – nothing less than the Body of Christ — took them on an odyssey far from home, spiritually and geographically.
Feast Day: Bernard Mizeki
We Brothers are familiar with the story of Bernard Mizeki, because in many ways, he’s one of our own. Unfortunately, the all too brief hagiography of him in Lesser Feasts and Fasts, doesn’t do him justice. Nor does it do justice to reason why his shrine in Zimbabwe continues to attract thousands of pilgrims each year on his feast day.
But today, I don’t want to focus on the story of his martyrdom. I want to remember a part of his story, which is less familiar: the story of his baptism.
Writing from Cape Town on 9 March 1886, Father Puller says this:
We had a very happy day on Sunday. As … the Bishop gave us leave to baptize our [African] catechumens before the … chapel was formally opened and licensed.
Accordingly, we got the building ready and held the service on Sunday Evening….
The altar with its dossal and canopy and other sanctuary hangings looked very dignified and beautiful….
Our baptismal tank holds about 400 gallons of water….
Father Shepherd has been training a choir, and we came into the chapel in procession singing “As pants the hart for cooling streams.” … The Chapel was very full of people, although we had not given public notice of the service. The choir took their places on one side of the baptismal tank, and the seven catechumens in dark blue garments reaching to their feet … on the other side. Fraulein von Blomberg, as godmother, had a place beside them. Everyone was, I think, impressed by the great seriousness and earnestness of the catechumens.
Julian of Norwich
Amid the swirling death and anxiety of pandemic, amid the social and political upheaval of today, we remember Julian of Norwich, who as James recently told us Brothers, is a good companion because she lived in a similar time. The late fourteenth century had much anxiety, death, and change. The Great Famine killed many and about twenty years later when Julian was born, the Black Death began killing millions. Then there were social and political revolts and beginnings of church reform.
Amid of all this, Julian received a series of visions and committed herself to a life of prayer, lived in a church, listening to and praying for many who came to her, and wrote a significant book reflecting on her experiences.
Julian’s life and writings embody our text from the Letter to the Hebrews. She encourages us to persevere because of who we know God to be. “Therefore, my friends, since we have confidence to enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus … let us approach … with faith … let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering … and let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds … .”
Julian lived that faith and hope confident in God’s abiding love for all of us. Robert Ellsberg wrote: “Her central insight was that the God who created us out of love and who redeemed us by suffering love, also sustains us and wills to be united with us in the end.”[i] May we join our prayers with Julian in response to God’s creative, redeeming, and sustaining love, confident in her words that “All shall be well, all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well.”
St. George the Martyr
Preaching on the saints can be, at times, a real challenge. This is especially true with some of the early saints, including some of the apostles, about whom we know very little, and what we do know, is largely legend. Does the preacher simply stick to the texts, or do they focus on the legend? The problem with dismissing the legend out of hand is that many of the legends have within them shards of historical truth, and if they don’t, the legends are so archetypal, they still contain truth, and those archetypal legends have the power to shape and influence lives.
This is especially true of St. George, whom we remember today. What can be said about him, or at least about his feast historically, is that his feast was being kept as early as the mid fifth century. The legend of George and the dragon can’t be traced back earlier than the twelfth century. It is thought he died a martyr in the early years of the fourth century, during the persecution of Diocletian. He may have been a soldier, which gave rise to him being recognized as the patron saint of soldiers in twelfth century. As patron saint of soldiers, the Crusades were fought under his banner, which is how, ultimately, devotion to George was carried back to England, where in 1347 he was declared the patron saint.
Self-denial or dying to self are common themes among martyrs honored by the Church. In fact, our Gospel reading today has been used for The Martyrs of Japan, Blandina and Her Companions, John Coleridge Patteson and his Companions, and, Saint George, dragon slayer. In what way could these examples of suffering and pain, stories of self-denial, cross bearing, and loss of worldly life teach us more about the way of Jesus? Well, I’m inspired, especially, by the stories of Saint George and Blandina, because they show us two helpful ways of understanding Jesus’ words, and two ways of dealing with the fear we might feel in response to Jesus’ call. First, we’ll look at Saint George.
Saint George was a compassionate and loving Christian, known especially for being a warrior of unmatched courage who gave his life for his faith. He’s typically portrayed as the patron saint of soldiers, and although many Christians today might not be soldiers, we still have a spiritual battle to fight. We can remember the words of Saint Paul when he writes that “our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.”
From a contemplative point of view these rulers or cosmic powers of darkness are the demons lurking within us, hard at work convincing us that we’re separate from God, from others, and our own True Selves. This spiritual battle is deceptively simple, because although it comes down to making a single choice, making the right choice can seem very difficult.
Luke 12: 4-12
Vincent of Saragossa, Deacon and Martyr, 304
This is an unusual week. Three days in a row, in the calendar, we commemorate some of the earliest martyr saints of the Church: Fabian, Agnes, Cecilia, and now Vincent, all martyred in some of the earliest waves of persecution against the Church.
It’s easy, from a distance of about 1800 years to look back at these figures and dismiss them as irrelevant to faithful Christian living in the early decades of this century. Our challenges living as Christians in an age of pandemic, are very different than theirs. Yet, by their feasts, especially since they happen three days in a row, they invite us to consider, not simply their deaths, but their lives, and the invitation they make to us today.
Vincent was a deacon of Spain, and the assistant of the saintly bishop, Valerius. Both of them were caught up in the persecution of early Christians ordered by the Emperor. Already, Valerius was an old man, but more significantly, tradition tells is that he had a serious speech impediment, and Vincent would often preach for him. The story goes that when they were called before the governor, Vincent said to the bishop, Father, if you order me, I will speak. To which Valerius responded, Son, I committed you to dispense the word of God, so I now charge you to answer in vindication of the faith which we defend. With those words, Vincent holding nothing back, proceeded to offer a defence of the Christian faith boldly and with exuberance.
Judith 9:1-4, 10-14
2 Corinthians 5:14-18
While darkness still covers the world, the woman comes to the garden adjacent to the place of death. Finding the great stone moved away from the tomb of the Man, she runs to search for two of his disciples. ‘They have taken my Lord out of the tomb and I do not know where they have laid him.’ The two run with the woman to the tomb. Though the much-loved younger one arrives first, he does not enter; but from outside he observes the grave wrappings neatly folded and set aside. Upon arriving the older impetuous one goes in immediately; he sees the wrappings but finds no body on the blood-stained slab. It is only then that the first one enters; he ‘sees’ and believes. Both then leave the grieving woman at the tomb.
Though racked by tears, the woman continues her search for the missing Man, the Beloved One. Bending to look into the tomb, the woman sees what the other two did not. Angels in dazzling white frame and shelter the empty burial slab. Though not yet fully aware of it, the woman is granted entrance to the Holy of Holies, the throne room of the God from whom the Man has come and to whom he is returning. The burial stone has become the heavenly mercy-seat; it is now the blood-sprinkled altar of the self-offering and re-creating God who took on human flesh to redeem us all.
It is remarkable how much a saint for our times is the Lady Julian. Living in the latter half of the fourteenth, and the beginning of the fifteenth centuries, on first glance one would think there was nothing about her life that would resonate with ours. However, like us, she lived at a time of much worry, anxiety, and turmoil. Twenty years before her birth in 1353, the Great Famine swept Northern Europe leaving up to 25 percent of the population dead. Shortly after her birth, the Black Death struck, leaving up to half the population of the city of Norwich itself dead, and killing an estimated 200 million people in total. It would take centuries for the population of Europe return to previous pre-Black Death numbers. Both these events lead to the Peasants’ Revolt in 1381, when the city of Norwich was overwhelmed by rebel forces. At this same time early agitation for the reform of the Church, known as Lollardy, initially begun by John Wycliffe, was beginning to take root
It was in that world, not so unlike our own, that the Lady Julian lived and received her showings or revelations during a time when she herself was gravely ill, and expected to die. After receiving the Last Rites on 8 May 1373, she lost her sight, and began to feel physically numb. It was in this state that as she gazed upon a crucifix above her bed, she saw the figure of Jesus beginning to bleed, and received her revelations. Over the next several hours she received sixteen revelations. Following her recovery five days later, she recorded them, first in a short version, now lost, except for a copy, and then many years later in a longer version.
The scene we just heard from Luke’s gospel is a familiar one to us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week as we pray the words of The Angelus. Our tower bell rings the Angelus daily at noon, three hundred and sixty three days a year, silenced only to mark the solemnity of Good Friday and Holy Saturday.
I confess that as I sat with it these past days, I struggled with its familiarity. Centuries of representation have layered upon the narrative the assumptions and preoccupations of so many ages. These layers of meaning tend to pile up, and Mary—the woman herself—often ends up lost in the various coats of semiotic varnish.
Think, for example, of the domesticated angels that litter Marian scenes—those chubby, adorable, benign little putti of the Italian renaissance who minister to Mary, Queen of some distant, unattainable heaven. “Mary on the half-shell,” as my friend Steph Budwey often calls this trope.
Or consider the many ways a cultural preoccupation with feminine submission speaks through the various portrayals of this very scene from Luke, and the ways such a preoccupation overshadows the very bold agency of a Mary who lays her doubt and concern at the feet of the messenger. How can this be? I am not yet married. This could be devastatingly scandalous. No, really God, how can this be?
I think it is important to let this moment startle us anew every time we hear it. For Mary is not any of these cultural projections; not merely a type; not merely a model of an unattainable gentleness or meekness; not some kind of surrogate for figures Venus, Brigid, or Minerva; and certainly not queen of some distant heaven.
For Mary is a woman. A flesh, blood, and soul woman. A woman caught, as are we, within the same messy, ill-defined workings of a sin-sick world. Poor, maligned, and subject to the same dangers and failings as we are. Tempted as we are to despair over our circumstances, our fragility, our inadequacy. How can this be?
Yet at the same time, a woman whom we believe to have borne in her body the very being of God, flesh, blood and soul; a vocation that doubtless exposed her female body to ridicule, danger, and scandal. A woman who still invites us to rely on and cooperate with the agency of God’s grace—for with God, nothing will be impossible. We remember her not for her accomplishments, or successes, or refinements, but for the grace of which she was (and continues to be) full. Hail Mary, full of grace.
God’s free grace. Grace, which armed her with a humility that would disarm the powers and principalities of the world and crown her queen not of some remote heaven, but of God’s new heaven-and-earth creation breaking in on our present darkness, even now.
The Annunciation is a familiar scene for us here at the monastery. We remember it twice a day, six days a week. It recalls for us that moment when God’s New Creation began to break into our world. A New Creation revealed not in kingly courts or around respectable tables. But within the messy, turbulent, and confusing life of an ordinary, flesh, blood, and soul woman.
Holy Mary, Mother of God,
Pray for us sinners.
 Luke 1:34
 Luke 1:37
Thomas Aquinas, OP (1225-1274)
Wisdom of Solomon 7:7-14
Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember today, personified what Jesus called the “scribe trained for the kingdom of heaven.” Aquinas was born in 1225 and died at just under 50 years old: a Dominican scholar, theologian, philosopher, and prolific author. He had a photographic memory and mind.[i] He would sit surrounded by four scribes and he would dictate one sentence to one scribe, the next sentence to the second scribe, and so forth. He spoke four times as fast as they could write. By the time he finished the fourth sentence, he would dictate the fifth sentence to the first scribe… and on he went. In 25 years, he wrote 50 folio volumes, about 50,000 pages, the equivalent of 500 short modern books with the help of his scribes. All of this was done with quill pens.
Thomas Aquinas looked back on Moses’ encounter with God as profoundly significant. In the Book of Exodus, we read of God’s sending Moses as an emissary to the Pharaoh. Moses asks God, “Whom shall I say is sending me?” God reveals to Moses God’s own identity: “I Am Who I Am.”[ii] Aquinas said, in that disclosure, we discover the reason for created life: God is Being, the Ultimate Reality from which everything else in creation exists. Aquinas said God’s essence is to exist; we and all other creation derive our existence from God. And so the whole of creation tells God’s story. Creation reflects God’s glory, God’s beauty, God’s order, God’s meaning.
For Aquinas, God’s revelation through creation was not just in the past, nor is it just in the present. God is always more. God’s revelation is ongoing and continues into the future. We must keep our minds open to God’s ongoing revelation. There is always more. And because of this, Aquinas did not see any inconsistency or disharmony between reason and revelation. God will continue to enlighten our minds if we will only be attentive.[iii] God’s revelation, Aquinas said, “is not the denial of [reason], but the perfection of reason.” Pay attention. God always has more to reveal to us, and this will be in harmony with what God has already revealed. Pay attention to life. The greatness and the glory and the wonder of God’s essence is beyond description, because God is always more: more than we can describe, understand, and experience. God is always more.
Thomas Aquinas’ scholarly pursuits had begun at age five when he had asked a teacher, “What is God?” His teacher had no answer, and Aquinas spent the rest of his life attempting to discover the answer… “What is God?” Who could have guessed where God’s revelation would lead Thomas Aquinas in the end? A few months before he died, he had a revelation, a mystical experience of Jesus, a foretaste of heaven, and it so radically transcended the words of Aquinas’ trade. Aquinas knew he was to end his scholarly work. He stopped writing words.
Peter Kreeft, the Boston College Aquinas scholar, uses the analogy of a Zen Buddhist wisdom about words: “A finger is useful for pointing to the moon, but whoa to the fool who mistakes the finger for the moon.” Aquinas had met his maker. Aquinas stopped his intellectual work, stopped his trading on words, and gave himself over to the attraction of God’s glory. [iv] His life’s work, his Summa Theologica, would be left unfinished, which was an unanticipated but fitting conclusion to someone so committed to God’s revelation being ongoing. There would always be more, more than Aquinas could summarize. Aquinas said of himself in his latter days, “compared to what I have now seen, everything I have written looks to me like straw.” What had he seen? God. He experienced God.
You are no Thomas Aquinas. But you need not be. You are you. One of a kind. What is God’s revelation to you that is uncontestable and perhaps unexplainable? What have you come to know to be true in life: the life that fills you and the life that surrounds you? Taking inspiration from Thomas Aquinas, consider what God has revealed to you in life. Don’t deny your mind; don’t disparage your studies; don’t denigrate your rationality but claim it all at a deeper level. Don’t deify your mind. What have you come to know at the deepest level to be absolutely true about life and love, and the source of it all?
In the end Thomas Aquinas claimed his identity not as a scholar but as a child of God. At the end of his life, Aquinas said that “the soul is like an uninhabited world that comes to life only when God lays His head against us.” Do you know the delight of a child tossing a ball into the air, Aquinas asks? That delight is what God experiences whenever God looks at you, Aquinas said. Thomas Aquinas’ revered intellect was, in the end, melded by love, loving knowledge.[v]
In the early centuries of Christian monasticism, this was called “putting your head into your heart.” Put your head into your heart and abide there. Reflect on what you know for sure, child of God that you are. What has God revealed to you about life and love – your life and the life that surrounds you – which may be inexplicable, but uncontestable? That is your life’s wisdom that is greater than gold.[vi]
Blessed Thomas Aquinas, whom we remember with thanksgiving.
- [i] Biographical detail by Peter Kreeft, A Summa of the Summa: Essential Passages of Aquinas (1990).
- [ii] Exodus 3:14.
- [iii] See Ephesians 1:15-23.
- [iv] From the SSJE Rule of Life: “The Call of the Society” (Chapter One). Referring to Jesus’ statement: “The glory that you have given me I have given them, so that they may be one, as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become completely one, so that the world may know that you have sent me and have loved them even as you have loved me.” (John 17:22-23)
- [v] Inspiration from The Inner Eye of Love; Mysticism and Religion, by William Johnston (1978), p. 20.
- [vi] Proverbs 3:14-24, 8:11, 16:16.