One of the things which fascinates me about the saints is that often those things for which they are most remembered and venerated, probably never happened. We keep today the feast of St. James and John the Apostles. As you know, James is remembered in parts of the Church as the one who first preached the Good News of the Gospel in Spain. It would appear that today only Spaniards believe this, for the earliest accounts of St. James’ travels to Spain only goes back to the seventh century. Truth, at least of the historical kind, seems to be unimportant when it comes to devotion to James, for even today his shrine in Spain continues to be one of the great places of pilgrimage in the Church.
According to that story, sometime after Pentecost, James travelled to Spain to preach the gospel. So far so good. But it gets better. While he was there, the Virgin appeared to him on the banks of the Ebro River, and commanded him to return to Jerusalem, where he faced his martyrdom. This apparition of Mary, known as Our Lady of the Pillar, is the first apparition of the Virgin, in a long series that includes Lourdes, Fatima, and Walsingham. But it gets better. Mary is presumed to have been living in Jerusalem at the time, so this was not so much an apparition, as it was an act of bilocation. Curiously, or not, some of the earliest archaeological evidence of devotion to Mary in Spain, dates to the fourth century, not far from where this apparition is said to have taken place. Another story of James’ martyrdom is that his accuser immediately repented and suffered the same fate as James. Following his death his body was transferred by to Spain, either by angels, or floating in a stone boat.
‘The disciples gathered around Jesus and they told him all that they had done.’
The disciples had been out on mission, and what an exciting experience they must have had! Jesus had sent them out two by two, with no provisions, just sandals on their feet and a staff in their hand. They preached, cast out demons, anointed the sick, and healed many people of their sickness. They must have been so excited. In our Gospel today, they have just come back from the mission, and they are telling Jesus all about it.
I have a really vivid picture in my mind of what that must have been like: all talking excitedly together; ‘Jesus, guess what happened! I anointed this man with oil and immediately he was made well. There were so many sick people coming to us, and we laid our hands upon them and prayed, and they were all made well. It was amazing. God be praised! Yes, but we two went into this town and they wanted nothing to do with us, told us to clear off! They refused to listen to our teaching. We were really disappointed, but we did as you said, and we left the town, shaking off the dust on our feet.’ It must have been very moving for Jesus to hear his spiritual children recounting their experiences. They had clearly grown and learned so much through the experience, and it is now that Mark’s Gospel for the first time calls them ‘apostles’ – they had kind of ‘graduated’! But Jesus could tell that they were also really exhausted. Ministry is hard work. So, with the kindness and gentleness of a good shepherd or a good parent, he says to them, ‘Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest awhile.’
“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and do not do what I tell you?” It is easy to hear this question harshly. It is easy for me to imagine Jesus asking this, vexed, frustrated, indignant, angry, at his wit’s end. And that’s a challenge. If Jesus really came into the world to save sinners,1 to show the utmost patience and mercy,2 to be our most steadfast friend and companion3…where are those qualities in this question?
Perhaps it might be helpful to engage in some self-reflection. How do I feel when I’ve experienced conflict with friends? When I’ve hurt a loved one, I may get defensive. I may conjure up offenses, real or imagined, that that friend has committed against me. I may feel the need to deflect responsibility, or engage in a perverse game of score-keeping; somehow, in these moments when I finish tallying the friendship score, I always seem to come out ahead. These feelings and behaviors, though, do not get at the heart of the issue. What really worries me when I’ve hurt a loved one is that I’ve created an irreparable breach, an eternally broken communion. It is a profoundly uncomfortable experience; I feel lonely, claustrophobic, anxious, and weary.
Today we remember Antony of Egypt, the founder of Christian monasticism, who moved out into the desert alone to pray. When Antony emerged from the desert and learned of a great persecution of the church, he returned to the city and cared for those in trouble. Later he returned to the desert but many people came out to see him and hear his wisdom. Judges repeatedly called Antony down to the city to advise them in their rulings.
Solitude for prayer, for focusing on relationship with God, is key to our life and what we offer on retreat. Monasticism like ours is life shared together, a company of friends who prioritize friendship with Christ.
2 Kings 5:1-15
Leprosy is a skin disease, though, in the Bible it is considered a state of ‘uncleanness’, rather than an illness. A person afflicted with leprosy is encouraged to present themselves to the priest, and not the physician. Leprosy is a spiritual condition, and we can understand it as a metaphor for an inward state of alienation. Unlovely, unwanted, lepers are relegated to the fringes of society, and are to be avoided. But most of us know that an unattractive skin disease is not a necessary condition for feeling estranged. Feelings of alienation, being misunderstood, not fitting-in, feeling “less-than”, and apart-from, being on the outside looking in, this is a real experience for many people. Alienation, the experience of not feeling as if one belongs, is a spiritual condition that Jesus came to save us from. Jesus came to save outcasts and sinners. The Bible often characterizes alienation metaphorically, as leprosy, which brings us to the story of Naaman from our first reading.[i]
“You did not choose me but I chose you.” –John 15:16
It is an honor to be chosen. When we are chosen to fill a job opening, chosen to be a friend or partner, chosen to take on a special role or responsibility… it is a sign of affirmation. Someone wants us, needs us, trusts us, believes in us. We feel honored to have been selected. And yet, even the highest earthly honors pale in comparison to the honor that has been bestowed on us in Christ, who has chosen us in love to be his friends.[i] Imagine! “You are my friends,” he says to us, “I have chosen you.”
When I entered seminary, I was confident that I would become a hospital chaplain. In college, I had a very positive experience in a small hospital chaplaincy internship, and I thought this was the path for me. So my whole first year of seminary I eagerly looked forward to the summer for a full-fledged internship. I thought this would be a little step up from what I had done in college.
Instead it was a huge leap and huge disappointment. Not long into the program, I found I didn’t like it at all. I had an excellent teacher in a wonderful department and hospital. They weren’t the problem. I just didn’t fit. This wasn’t my path. It was the opposite of what I expected, a 180. My dream shattered. I was sad and confused. Why had I been so excited? Did I not hear correctly? Did I make a huge mistake? Should I return to seminary in the fall? If not, what in the world should I do next?
We remember today Aelred, the twelfth century abbot of the Cistercian monastery of Rievaulx in northern England, who died on this day in the year 1167. Aelred is most remembered for his writings on the gift of friendship, hence the marvelous collect we have been praying today:
Pour into our hearts, 0 God, the Holy Spirit’s gift of love,
that we, clasping each the other’s hand, may share the joy
of friendship, human and divine, and with your servant
Aelred draw many into your community of love….