Know More Than You Should…

Today the church honors the feast day of a number of saints in the mystic tradition including St. Catherine of Siena, Johannes Tauler, and Blessed Henry Suso.

But I’d like to lift up one of my favorite 14th Century mystics, Meister Eckhart.

Eckhart, whose formal name is Johannes, was born sometime around the year 1260 in Germany. He was trained as a Dominican, and true to form was known as a wonderful preacher.

His teachings were not only deeply mystic and spiritual, but were also seen as being on the fringe for his day (and still may be considered so, today!). Because of this, he was brought up on heresy charges by the Archbishop of Cologne, and died before the matter was settled.

Years after his death a papal bull was distributed that named some of his writings as heretical, noting that “he wished to know more than he should.”

My favorite quote of the great Meister is:

“What good is it to me that Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago, and I do not also give birth to the Son of God in my time and in my culture?

We are all meant to be mothers of God. God is always needing to be born.”

Eckhart is a reminder for the church, and for each of us, that the quest to “know more than we should” is one to be risked.

We should all quest to know more than we should…

Our Missteps Should Not be Our Legacy

Today the Church remembers an obscure, but important, contemporary saint: Toyohiko Kagawa.

Toyohiko was the biological son of a member of the Japanese Cabinet and a geisha girl, and was raised by his father’s wife. He was eventually sent to live with an uncle, and learned English through a Bible course. At 15 he became a Christian, and was rejected by his family of origin.

He dedicated his life to serving in the slums of Japan. He lived in the most impoverished slum, Shinkawa, for most of his young adulthood, abiding in a 6ft by 6ft hut with his wife Haru.

From there he began organizing.

In 1912 he organized the first labor union in Japan for shipyard workers. in 1918 he founded the Labor Federation and in 1921 the Farmer’s Union. He was arrested numerous times in worker strikes and street riots, and in 1925 he worked successfully for universal male suffrage in Japan.

His work in both unionizing and social welfare was born from what he saw as the Christian ideal for social order, lifting up the poor and the marginalized. His writings helped the powerful see the plight of the poor in Japan.

As nationalist fervor started to bubble, he founded the Anti-War League in 1928. In 1940 he was arrested in Japan for apologizing to China for Japanese aggression, and in 1941 he was part of a group who came to the United states to try to avert the war.

Despite all of this, the climate in Japan during the war influenced him greatly, as did the fear of political retribution. He was known, during the war, as being a nationalistic hardliner.

After the war, Kagawa led efforts to establish democratic institutions in Japan. He died in Tokyo on this day in 1960.

Kagawa is a wonderful example of how the complexity of a heart for the poor and geo-political realities affect humanity. Hindsight leads us to see where we have succeeded, and where we have stumbled, and despite our best efforts to keep our feet under us, no one leads an unblemished existence.

His commemoration is a good reminder, for all of us, that our missteps should not, in the end, erase the times we were in alignment with justice. No saint is perfect, after all.

-historical information gathered from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations: A Proposed Common Calendar of Saints

Mother of Us All

Today the church remembers not a particular saint, but rather the Mother to us all: Earth Day.

The first Earth Day was held in 1970 with the rise of the environmental movement. As the Industrial Revolution quickly began taking its toll on the planet, humans began noticing some tangible changes in the way things looked, tasted, and smelled in the world…and it was not good. Though these changes smelled like prosperity to some, others knew it was a warning sign that the Earth was…is…dying, and that death was being accelerated by humans.

In those early days, pollution was the main focus of most Earth Day activities. And while that is still true today to some extent, we’ve now recognized global warming as the true danger to life on, and the life of, this planet.

In the opening lines of Genesis we find the Divine carefully crafting the earth, separating this from that, throwing birds in the air and playing ultimate “catch and release” with the fishes of the sea. The plants are coaxed from their ground, and humans are shaped out of the black soil. This poetic vision of the creation was not meant to be science…it was art. The art of the Divine being infused in every good thing that inhabits this planet.

And then, as the Creator rested, they charged humanity with tending all that had been made.

Earth Day is a reminder for me, and for the church, that this planet was not given to humans, but rather entrusted to them. In our efforts to thrive we’ve stumbled and sacrificed the lives of so many of our fellow creatures…remember: we’re all creation. And while we may not be able to stop global warming, we can slow it and shape it a bit.

Indeed: we are called to do that.

-icon “Cosmic Christ” written by Alex Grey

Erstwhile Bishop

Today the church remembers the embattled Bishop: St. Anselm, Scholar, Erstwhile Bishop of Canterbury, and Preeminent Theologian.

Born in northwestern Italy, Anselm’s childhood was privileged in many ways. His parents were wealthy nobles and, after the death of his mother and an argument with his father, St. Anselm left home at the age of twenty-three to explore the world and further his education.

He found the Benedictine monastery of Bec in Normandy and, though he had been left all the family land by his father (who died while Anselm was abroad), he entered the brotherhood as a novice in 1060. Bec was the intellectual seat of the church at the time, and under St. Anselm’s influence grew ever more so. St. Anselm soon became the prior of Bec and then abbot of the monastery. He encouraged the church to move beyond the recitation of the faith and into an exploration of it. He prized Mary as the mother of God, but argued against her immaculate conception (he didn’t think it was a necessary doctrine). He formalized a process of theology known as “substitutionary atonement,” though it would be his students who would turn it into the (largely heretical) doctrine most know today.

He prized the life of the mind.

Soon he was summoned to be the Archbishop of Canterbury, replacing one of his teachers in the seat. There he entered into a power struggle with the King of England (Rufus…that name didn’t stick) over ultimate authority in the land. Rufus refused to recognize the Pope and, smelling an intense struggle, St. Anselm went to Rome and made his home there for a bit…just until things quieted down in England.

In Rome he worked hard on the Council of Bari (Pope Urban I had appointed him to it) that sought to reunify the Eastern and Western church. It didn’t happen, but St. Anselm’s contributions to the council remain distinguished.

Ultimately King Rufus died and King Henry I (that name did stick!) summoned St. Anselm back to Canterbury. Unfortunately the power struggle continued for the little island to the north, catching St. Anselm in the hot seat there. Now at the end of his days and in poor health, St. Anselm died on Wednesday in Holy Week on this day in 1109.

One of my favorite quotes of St. Anselm is this little ditty about the Christ, a totally feminist viewpoint:

“Are you (Jesus) not a mother too? Indeed you are, and the mother of all mothers, who tasted death in your longing to bring forth children to life.”

St. Anselm is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the life of the mind is far superior to the recitation of stale doctrine.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

Refusing to Play the Game

Today the church remembers the first Archbishop of Canterbury to die by martyrdom (but certainly not the last): St. Alphege, Bishop, Martyr, and Resistor.

St. Alphege was born in the year 954 and, having been raised in the faith, became a Benedictine monk. He served as the prior of the abbey at Bath, and then as Archbishop of Canterbury in the days when Viking attacks were rampant on the island.

In the year 1012, Viking raiders captured Canterbury. Alphege pleaded with the marauders to spare the town, but the Vikings did not listen. They pillaged the town, killed many of the people, burned the cathedral, and kept Alphege as their hostage.

From the remaining townspeople the Vikings demanded a ransom in exchange for Alphege’s freedom. Alphege knew his townspeople were poor, and refused to play their game, choosing imprisonment in perpetuity. The Vikings, incensed by his refusal, stoned Alphege. One Viking, a Thorkell the Tall, attempted to shield the Bishop from the blows, but the raiders ultimately prevailed.

St. Alphege died on this day in the year 1012.

St. Alphege is a reminder for me, and should be for everyone, that sometimes you prevent cycles of injustice by simply refusing to play the games of the powerful any longer.

-historical notes from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

Model Disciple

Today the church remembers a 17th Century saint, the first Native American that the church officially canonized: St. Kateri Tekakwitha, the Lily of the Mohawks.

St. Kateri was born to an Algonquin mother who was a practicing Christian and a Mowhak Turtle chief, who was not a Christian. When she was just four years old, a smallpox epidemic took both of her parents and her brother, leaving her with damaged eyesight and noticeable scars on her face. She was taken in by her uncle, who did not approve of her mother’s faith.

At the age of 18, St. Kateri secretly started studying with Jesuit missionaries, and she decided to be baptized and assume the name “Kateri” in honor of St. Catherine of Siena.

A year after her baptism, French conquerors came through and massacred her people and burned their village. St. Kateri escaped by taking to the St. Lawrence River. She was taken in by a First Nations tribe down river who happened to be Christian, and she dedicated her life to prayer and the care for the sick.

At the age of twenty-three St. Kateri contracted tuberculosis, and died shortly before turning twenty-four. Her final words were reportedly, “Jesus–Mary–I love you.”

She was canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1980, the first First Nations saint to be canonized (though, truly, many are canonized in the hearts of those who know their stories). She is often referred to as Lily of the Mohawks.

St. Kateri is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes those who have walked the most unjust roads are the perfect companions for those in need. St. Kateri’s life was ravaged by white invaders who brought their diseases, guns, and unbridled ambition to take over a land and subjugate a people they had no claim to, often in the name of religion and the church.

But, like her Jesus whom she loved so much, St. Kateri was a model for them of true discipleship.

-historical bits gleaned from Claiborne and Wilson-Hartgrove’s Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals

Any Moment

A thought for Tuesday of Holy Week:

The ancient Celts who adopted Christianity into their worldview had this belief that, with every birth Christ was also birthed into the world. In the inside of every human a bit of that redemptive possibility had taken root. We, in their theology, were not “original sin” carriers, but the bearers of “original possibility.”

So, too, they believed every moment could be an Easter moment, because redemption was inside everything…it just needed time and the right environment to blossom.

The Tuesday of Holy Week, as Spring cleaning continued, they turned their attention outside the house: hanging wreathes and garlands, pruning, and (where possible) planting or prepping to plant.

Easter was coming and it could arrive at any moment.

Quite literally.

The Triduum: How to Avoid an Overly Saccharine Easter

As we enter Holy Week, a thought on the events to come:

The Triduum, or Great Three Days, is the antidote to an overly saccharine Easter.

Maundy Thursday gathers the disciples, including you, around a shared table where we all get our feet washed and we all share in dipping our bread in the same bowl as Jesus.

Then the sanctuary is stripped, like our souls now feel stripped, as we realize not only what is about to happen, but also that we must stay to bear witness.

On Good Friday we come not to church, but, with everything bare and the lights low, to a darkened tomb. There we encounter the story of that fateful night, a story we know well not only because we’ve heard it every year, but also because we’ve lived it. It’s familiar.

We’ve all been betrayed by our friends, and have all betrayed a friend. We’ve all been falsely accused and accused others without evidence, let alone our unspoken shame knowing our justice system does this, and profits from it all the time.

We’ve all seen power prey on the powerless. This is that story, but instead of the local courtroom it’s the courtroom of the cosmos.

The reproaches are sung where we’re challenged to answer unanswerable questions of eternal proportions, and the service ends with the cross alone left in the room.

We are, in the end, left only with the cross: this twisted tool of torture to which we now cling, hoping that something good can yet come from it.

Sound familiar?

And then we spend the whole next day in the quiet of non-answers. And at dusk we stream back to that tomb, create a new fire to keep our souls warm, and tell campfire stories of salvation to console ourselves.

“Remember that time that God created the world?” we ask around the fire. “And remember when God saved those folks from the fiery furnace?” We retell these stories as a way to spark hope that, as in those impossible moments, God might be able to do something new with this impossible moment. We teach these stories to our babies, even as we reteach it to ourselves.

And then before we know it, the tomb has turned into a lush garden, and that tomb that was full of death is suddenly full of life: flowers, water, and yes, living bodies.

Our bodies.

Our bodies who now gather around the body of the risen Christ now seen in bread, wine, water, and the faces around us. And we baptize people who have newly heard all of this. And we sing and dance and party because, yup, resurrection has happened again, by God!

The whole arc has import. Every scene plays a part.

Easter is not a day, it’s a journey

Educator and Theologian

Attention my Finnish friends! Attention!

Today the church remembers a Finnish Bishop who studied under Martin Luther himself: St. Mikael Agricola, Bishop of Turku, Renewer of the Church, and Mystic.

Born in Uusimaa (the Fins think “why use one vowel when you can use two?), he went to school in Viipuri and then Turku. He was a good student and due to his scholarly achievements, he was sent by his Bishop to Wittenberg to study under Luther and Malanchthon.

After his graduation, Luther wrote him a letter of recommendation (apparently those have been necessary in the schola forever) and he became Assistant to the Bishop at Turku, eventually succeeding him in the bishopric without seeking Papal approval (a big no-no).

As Bishop St. Mikael undertook extensive Lutheran reforms throughout Finland, encouraging greater participation and catechesis of the laity. Toward this end, he developed an orthography, the basis for modern Finnish spelling, and prepared a book of ABC’s, a prayer book, a New Testament translation, a translation of the Mass, and a collection of Finnish hymns.

Truly, he was an educator as well as a theologian.

After being sent to Russia as part of a delegation to negotiate a peace between Russia and Sweden, he fell ill on the return trip. He died the night of Palm Sunday in 1557 after having been Bishop for only three years.

Though much of his work was in the practical changes needed for an informed church, he was a deeply spiritual person who held ancient mysticism in high regard.

He is widely commemorated in Finland to this day.

St. Mikael is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that you don’t have to be in a position for very long to make a huge difference.

-historical bits gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

All Glory…

Bishop Theodulph of Orleans penned the hymn my heart is singing on this Palm Sunday morning, “All Glory, Laud, and Honor.”

It truly is one of my favorites, made more sacred by the fact that we really only sing it once a year.

He is said to have written it from his prison tower, thrown there by King Louis the Debonair, son of Charlemagne.

The story goes that the Bishop wrote this hymn and, in the year 821 as the Emperor passed by on Palm Sunday heading to Mass at the cathedral, he sang it loudly over the passing procession from his stone entombment. The emperor, taken with the song, released the good Bishop.

Truly the rocks themselves will shout for justice.