In the calendar of the church we remember the life and witness of Vincent de Paul. He was born in France in the year 1580 to a peasant family. He was bright, given educational opportunity, and, at 20 years old, was ordained in year 1600. This was a time of enormous change in western Europe. Most historians locate the late 15th/early 16th century as the beginning or at least maturing of western capitalism. Merchants, entrepreneurs, and bankers accumulated and manipulated capital in unprecedented levels. It was the best of times and the worst of times, worst certainly for the bankrupt and for the poor, who became more numerous and more destitute. History repeats itself.
Vincent, when called to hear the confession of a dying man, was shocked by the spiritual poverty of the penitent. Vincent began preaching sermons on confession, calling people to the necessity of repentance. His sermons were so persuasive that villagers stood in line to go to confession. It was not just the laity, but also his fellow clergy whom he found so poorly formed in their own ministry. He became a pioneer in the renewal of theological education, and was instrumental in establishing seminaries. He also pioneered conducting retreats for clergy. In year 1626, Vincent and three other priests vowed to live and pray together, and to devote themselves as mission priests. The founder of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, Richard Meux Benson in the 1860s, patterned our own community on Vincent de Paul’s Company of Mission Priests.
Life Profession of Keith Robert Nelson SSJE
2 Chronicles 6: 12 – 15, 41 – 42 – 7: 4
1 Peter 1: 3 – 9
John 15: 1 – 11
I don’t know if this was your experience, Keith. It certainly was mine. When I announced to my friends that I was coming here to test my vocation, a number of them responded, what a waste. Some thought that I had suffered a setback, a disappointment, in life, and that I was going off to the monastery to lick my wounds, to heal, to hide. Others thought that I was throwing away my life as a parish priest, in exchange for a life they could not understand, much less comprehend. A few thought that I was turning to a life that was too heavenly minded, to be any earthly good. There were one or two, who thought that I was disappearing behind the monastery wall, and would never be heard of, or seen again, and they grieved my coming here, as if I had died. A few assumed that I was simply running away from something. It was impossible to explain in ways they could understand, what I was doing, and why I was doing it. It took a huge amount of determination, and persistence to come, because in this day and age, our life does seem to many, to be a waste. It appears to them that we are running away. It looks to them that we are hiding from the real world. Why on earth would a talented, young man, with enormous potential, choose such a life that is so foreign, so alien, so strange, to the world around us?
Looked at one way, our life is unfathomable. It makes no sense. It is a waste, because the one thing at the core of our life is so, so incomprehensible, to so, so many people. That incomprehensible thing of course, is God.
This life makes absolutely no sense unless, and until, God makes sense. As Father Benson reminds us, [we] must seek to realize increasingly the purposes for which our Society is called together – to live for God…. It is this single-minded living for God that is at the core of our life, which sets us apart from the prevailing culture around us, and which to some, makes no sense at all.
Today at both Morning Prayer and the Eucharist we are confronted with a scandal. In both places the original audiences would have been shocked by what Jesus was saying. They may have been listening as Jesus spoke, thinking yes, yes, I quite see that. Suddenly, they would have been startled by what they heard. Perhaps they turned to their neighbour with a quizzical look. Maybe they asked someone near them to repeat what they thought they had just heard. Perhaps they tried to clean out their ears, thinking they had misheard the Teacher. But if we read the gospels carefully, what we heard this morning is not new. Jesus repeats it over, and over. Indeed, Jesus lives it. We could even say that Jesus dies it.
Blessed are those slaves whom the master finds alert when he comes; truly I tell you, he will fasten his belt and have them sit down to eat, and he will come and serve them.
‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured…’
I Corinthians 1:18-25
Eighteen months ago, during my sabbatical, I spent a week in southwest France at Lourdes. I’d wanted to go to Lourdes for many years, to see what it is like and to try to understand why so many people have found it a place of healing and hope. I could talk for hours about my experiences there, but there was one thing that moved me more than anything else. It was the sight of hundreds of men and women in wheelchairs, being pushed with such respect, kindness and tenderness by mostly young men and women, some students, from all around the world. What was so clear, and really wonderful, was that here at Lourdes, those who were weak, sick, broken, disabled, were honored and really given pride of place. In most places in our society today, where power and wealth and success are trumpeted, the sick, the broken, the weak, the disabled, are so often marginalized and even hidden away. But not at Lourdes.
It made me think back to my late teens when I was considering Christianity. What most attracted me to the Christian faith was that it could embrace and make sense of suffering, sickness, failure and weakness. Humanism really couldn’t explain it at all – they rather got in the way.
Worshipping with men and women in wheelchairs, laughing and joking with them over a glass of Guiness, listening to their stories of faith and trust, and frankly getting in touch with my own weakness and need for healing was, I think, at the heart of the extraordinarily Suffering sense of holiness I felt there. It was unforgettable.
Lenten Commemoration – George Herbert (1593-1633)
Our God and King, you called your servant George Herbert from the pursuit of worldly honors to be a pastor of souls, a poet, and a priest in your temple: Give us grace, we pray, joyfully to perform the tasks you give us to do, knowing that nothing is menial or common that is done for your sake; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
In the calendar of the church, we commemorate today a 17th-century Church of England country parson named George Herbert. Down through the centuries, he is most remembered for his arresting, revealing, passionate poetry, which was published posthumously. There was a secret to George Herbert’s greatness, but not the obvious.
We remember today Margaret, Queen of Scotland. This brief description of her is drawn from For All the Saints, a resource of the Anglican Church of Canada:
Margaret was an Anglo-Saxon princess who became the [wife] of King Malcolm III of Scotland in 1069. She bore eight children and through her husband initiated civilizing reforms in the Scottish royal court, the Scottish Church, and the Scottish nation. But Margaret is chiefly remembered for her efforts on behalf of Scotland’s poor. She not only gave out large sums of money but also ensured that institutions already in place did indeed provide relief for the homeless, the hungry, and the orphaned. In addition, Margaret supplied the funds which purchased freedom for those Anglo-Saxons who had been sold into slavery by their Norman conquerors. Hence, to her title of Queen is added the still greater title for a Christian – “Helper of the Poor.”[i] [italics mine]
“Helper of the Poor.” Would to God that every Christian on the planet could be known by that title. To be a “helper of the poor” is to be one with the mission of Jesus who, according to his own testimony, was anointed by God “to bring good news to the poor… to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, [and] to let the oppressed go free…” (Lk 4:18). It is to be one with the mission of God in the world, whose deep concern and compassion for the helpless is so much in evidence throughout our sacred scriptures.
Feast of St. Martin of Tours
St. Martin of Tours, whom we remember today, was almost universally unpopular among his fellow bishops. But the reasons for this unpopularity are also the reasons we remember his life and witness in the Church. He was strongly opposed to the suppression of heresy through the use of military intimidation or violence. Tragically, such suppression had become common by that point in the history of the early Church. Martin was also called to the monastic life, and refused to compromise this commitment after becoming bishop. The monastic movement in the Western Church was still new enough that this way of life must have made Martin seem even more eccentric and uncooperative with clerical business as usual. Finally, he lacked a formal Latin education and was not a member of the ruling class, having been trained from an early age as a soldier.
St. Martin is most frequently represented in sacred art wearing the military uniform of a soldier, seated on horseback, cutting his red cloak in half with his sword and giving one half to a poorly clad beggar. It is a deeply archetypal image of compassion. We have seen so many images in children’s books, in movies, or in video games, of warriors on horseback committing acts of violent subjugation, slaying dragons or evil knights or foreign invaders. Even those who do so in the service of rescuing a helpless victim are seen slaying or beheading or trampling in the fulfillment of their virtuous mission. St. Martin inhabits this mythic genre, but with a crucial twist that confronts all that what we have been conditioned to see or expect in a warrior. St. Martin believed that spiritual warfare called for spiritual weapons. Foremost among these was his sacrificial generosity.
Feast of St. Francis of Assisi
Today, we celebrate in the calendar of the Church, Saint Francis of Assisi who died on this day in the year 1226. Born 44 years earlier to wealthy parents, Francis grew up in the lap luxury and as a young man enjoyed a care-free lifestyle, gallivanting with the other upper-crust youth of Assisi with whom he was popular. Upon returning home from fighting in the Crusades, Francis had a conversion experience. After a prolonged illness he stumbled upon the ruins of a church in San Damiano where he heard the voice of Christ say, “Francis, repair my falling house.” He returned home and sold some of his father’s expensive silk to pay for the repairs. Angry, his father brought him into the public square where, with the citizens of Assisi witnessing the display, disowned and disinherited him. Francis likewise renounced his father’s wealth and tradition says he took off his expensive clothing and laid them at his father’s feet and walked away naked. He left Assisi and began to rebuild the church at San Damiano all by himself.While engaging in this work, he ministered to the poor of Assisi, especially the lepers who were feared by the townsfolk and were literal outcasts. Francis would sneak back into town and scavenge for scraps of bread and vegetables to provide nourishment for those he cared for.
Jesus said to the disciples,“There was a rich man who had a manager, and charges were brought to him that this man was squandering his property… 29And I tell you, make friends for yourselves by means of dishonest wealth so that when it is gone, they may welcome you into the eternal homes…” 10 Luke 16:1-13
We could easily find this Gospel lesson appointed for today either confusing or offending. It seems that Jesus is praising the practices of a dishonest account manager. The manager falsifies the amounts owed to his employer so that when this manager is out of a job – mind you, he’s being fired because of his dishonesty! – these same creditors with whom he is currying illicit favor would admire him or owe him, and ultimately welcome him into their homes!
Feast of St. John Chrysostom
In 1940, Fr. Gregory Petrov, a Russian Orthodox priest, died in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia. Among his possessions was found a copy of a hymn entitled “Glory to God for All Things.” It is uncertain whether Petrov composed the hymn, but it is clear that it was written during the period of intense, coordinated persecution of the Church in Russia begun under Lenin. The systematic attempt to annihilate religious identity in Russia continued in waves of varying intensity until the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. The hymn so cherished by Petrov was copied and distributed secretly, sung and recited in clandestine gatherings of the faithful during those years, as Christians in the millions were arrested, imprisoned, tortured, sent to mental hospitals, barred from worshipping, praying, training new clergy or building churches. The hymn is now easy to find in English translation. I discovered it a few years ago, and my gratitude to God is always kindled anew when I return to its litanies of undaunted thanksgiving: