Almost Makes One Hopeful

Today is one of my favorite Feast Days for one of my favorite saints: Saint Nicholas, Bishop, Patron Saint of Sailors, and Gift-giver.

It is ironic that little is known about the life of Saint Nicholas, this Bishop of a seaport town in what is now Turkey, because he’s one of the most beloved and recognizable saints in popular culture. We know that he was born in the 4th Century, and that he attended the Council of Nicaea where he is purported to have socked Arius (considered a heretic at the time) right in the face. Anyone who has served on a church council understands that it can get a bit testy sometimes…

But other than the above (and the whole “punched Arius” thing may not even be accurate), all else that is said about St. Nicholas is lore and legend.

It is said of him that, as an infant, he refused to nurse on Wednesdays and Fridays, typically fasting days for the pious.

It is said that he aided a poor family once by paying the dowry of three daughters, saving them from a life of prostitution. On three successive nights he threw bags of coins through an open window. This act is how he became known as the patron saint of gift-giving.

It is said that he saved three boys who had been kidnapped by a butcher and returned them to their parents.

It is said that he aided sailors in trouble off the coast of Myra by calming a storm, and showed great courage himself while out on the sea. This is why he is the patron saint of seafarers.

Today around the world Saint Nicholas will be impersonated by many utilizing a long, white beard, parading around in Bishop vestments. In some places small children dress up like the saint to beg for alms for the poor.

In America the rituals of St. Nicholas Day have almost all been moved to December 25th and melded with other Christian-Solstice practices. Still, in some homes (like mine), children leave their shoes out by the fireplace or in the foyer of the home, hoping that St. Nicholas will come by on his horse and leave chocolate coins, oranges, and small trinkets as gifts. The coins are an homage to the legend of the dowries.

The festivities and legends surrounding Saint Nicholas have melded with Norse and Celtic winter legends and lore in these days. Looking more like Odin now than a short, brown-skinned Bishop (which he most certainly was), common depictions of Santa Claus bear little resemblance to this ancient priest from Asia Minor. Still, the practice of gift-giving and charity is certainly worth continuing in whatever form it takes, and in that way St. Nicholas is kept alive age after age in one form or another.

Saint Nicholas is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that charity and love are languages that are universal and, in the form of Saint Nick, take on hands, feet, and a face every year. There is much to be learned about human nature and human connection from the fact that his appeal is so wide and varied!

It almost makes one hopeful, yes?

-historical notes gleaned from Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations and too many Rick Steves documentaries on Christmas

Nothing is Face Value

In the breaking days of December the church honors a Saint who found himself in a church at a breaking point: St. John of Damascus, Hymnwriter and Priest.

Born in 675, St. John was born into a wealthy family and was elevated to a political position of prominence at quite a young age when he succeeded his father as an official in the Court of the Caliph of Damascus.

He felt a call to the faith, and became a monk at the monastery of Mar Saba (still in existence!), a hermit colony founded in the year 484. It was there that he gave up his position in the Caliphate Court and devoted himself to simplicity, the study of the Desert Mothers and Fathers, and the priesthood. He was ordained in 725.

It was about this time that the church began to crumble under the weight of melding practices. The Eastern and Western churches were evolving drastically different approaches to faith and life. It would take another 300 years for the split to become official, but it is here in history that we can see the fault lines.

In these days the Byzantine emperor Leo III forbade the veneration of sacred images and icons, and ordered their destruction. St. John of Damascus wrote vehemently that icons and sacred images were portals and glimpses of the Divine, not Divine themselves, and should be saved and maintained. As part of his logic, he successfully defended the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist as well, against those who would dismiss it.

St. John of Damascus wrote great mystical treatises on theology, too, that are still foundational for the Orthodox community.

For all of the above, St. John of Damascus is considered by the Eastern Church as the last of its Fathers.

We still sing the writings of St. John, by the way. That wonderful Easter hymn sung every year that goes, “Come, ye faithful, raise the strain of triumphant gladness!” came from his golden pen. He authored a number of Easter hymns that still sing out the faith to this day every Spring.

St. John of Damascus died near Jerusalem around 760. He is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that icons and objects can be glimpses of Divine presence in this world, and we need not take everything at face value.

Indeed, nothing is “face value” when it comes to the Divine. God is always more than they appear…and godly things can be, too.

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

The Poor are the First Martyrs

Today the church remembers the Martyrs of El Salvador.

Ita Ford, Maura Clarke, Jean Donovan, and Dorothy Kazel were Catholic Missionaries, Ursuline, and Maryknoll Sisters murdered in 1980 for their outspoken defense of the plight of the powerless and poor. Accompanying the people there, they were irritating the powers of the day with their theology of liberation and hope.

These four sisters were murdered on this day in the same year that Archbishop Romero was murdered, though he was killed in March.

Instead of recounting the details of their lives, I’ll just share a bit from a letter Sister Clarke wrote to her companion, Katie, just before she was murdered:

“There are so many deaths everywhere that it is incredible.

The ‘death squadron’ strikes in so many poor homes. A family of seven, including three small children, was machine-gunned to death in a nearby town just last week. It is a daily thing–bodies everywhere, many decomposing or attacked by animals because no one can touch them until they are seen by a coroner. It is an atmosphere of death.

I don’t know what tomorrow will bring…Write to me soon. Know that I love you and pray for you daily. Keep us in your heart and prayers, especially the poor forsaken people.”

The days surrounding Christmas are filled with Feast Days, some beautiful (like St. Nicholas), and some tragic like today. This is because the Divine entered into the world not as we would like it to be, but as it is: beautiful and tragic.

These martyrs today are a reminder to me, and should be for the church, that the first victims of any sort of violence are the poor and vulnerable.

If you need confirmation of that, just ask any medical professional who they are treating for COVID-19.

Those with means, good insurance, fewer health conditions (that are easily and often exacerbated by poverty!), and who can take off work to get treatment without fear of losing their job largely recover.

Those without, do not.

Looking at you Joe Rogan and Aaron Rodgers.

It is a different kind of violence, a more negligent kind on the part of the powers of the world, but it is violence none-the-less.

The B-Side

Today, November 30th, the church honors an often overshadowed apostle, Saint Andrew. He’s usually called “brother of Peter,” and rarely seen without that qualifier, making him, in essence, known to the world only in relation to his brother…which many people can probably identify with.

St. Andrew is the patron saint of sea-people, but also the informal saint of all who stand in the shadow of someone else.

He is the saint for the B-side of the record, the underdog sibling, the cobbler and the cooper who are no longer appreciated in their crafts.

Lore notes him dying in Greece, crucified because he refused to make sacrifice to the local gods and kept talking about Jesus.

And though he stood in the shadow of his brother his whole life, Andrew gets a place of prominence in the end: his feast day is the official marker for the start of Advent because the First Sunday of Advent every year is the Sunday that falls closest to St. Andrew’s day.

Real Religious Persecution

Today the church remembers a 20th Century Mexican priest, St. Miguel Agustin Pro, Martyr of the Faith.

St. Miguel was born in 1891 in Zacatecas, Mexico, and was known as a happy, cheerful, and privileged child. Despite his relatively high-born status, he developed a deep love and kinship for the working class families around him, and began to spend all of his time and energy working alongside the poor.

He eventually became a Jesuit novice at the age of twenty, and was exiled during the Mexican Revolution. He went to Belgium, where he was ordained, and eventually returned to Mexico in the wake of the war. He found churches closed, priests hiding, and being a Catholic now illegal. Fr. Miguel would regularly dress up in disguises to conduct secret and underground ministry, especially offering pastoral care, comfort, and the sacraments to the afflicted.

In 1927 St. Miguel was accused of being a part of a failed bombing attempt, though it is widely believed that the charges were false. He was handed over to the police and sentenced to death without so much as a trial.

As he was put in front of the firing squad he cried out, “Long live Christ the King!”

Though the government forbade a public funeral, people poured out of their homes to line the streets as his body passed by.

St. Miguel is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church in the United States, that it was not so long ago that real religious persecution so close to home was a thing, so we should be very hesitant to claim it over baking cakes, serving pizza, and performing weddings and whatnot today.

-historical pieces from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations

-icon by Iknu Arts (

Almost Made It…

Today the church honors an apostolic pillar whose writings almost (and should have!) made it into the Biblical canon: St. Clement, Theologian and Bishop of Rome.

Little is known about the life of St. Clement, who was probably the fourth Bishop of Rome. He lived and died right around the year 100, and may be the same Clement written about in the book of Philippians (4:3). He was certainly the writer, though, of the Epistle of Clement I (though probably not the Epistle of Clement II).

Ordained by St. Peter, Clement was said to be banished to Crimea during the reign of Trajan, forced to work in the mines. It was there, it is said, that he was tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea (the anchor is his saintly symbol).

But though so little is known about Clement, we certainly know much about his thoughts and his voice. In the year 96 Clement authored a letter from the Church at Rome to the Church at Corinth. This letter is the earliest Christian document we have in existence, with the exception of some New Testament writings, and was written to encourage the Church at Corinth to avoid a schism and remain steadfast to one another. It’s a letter of pastoral advice.

This letter was so widely known, and so widely revered, at early manuscripts of the New Testament include it in the canon.

St. Clement is a reminder for you, and should be for the whole church, that not all that is holy is contained in the canon, Beloved.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_

A Lion, a Pen, and Apologies

Today the church remembers a masterful storyteller who wove a tapestry of tales that continue to teach: Clive Staples Lewis, Writer and Dream Maker.

St. Lewis (you know him better as C.S. Lewis, no doubt) was born in Northern Ireland to a barrister father and mathematician mother. After years of boarding schools, he attended University College, Oxford and, after graduation, was appointed as a Tutor and Fellow there, and eventually as Professor of Medieval and Renaissance Literature a Cambridge.

At his heart, he was a writer. Scholarly works, fictional works, essays regarding the state of humanity, C.S. Lewis was born with one pen in his hand and another in his mouth.

As a youth he had rejected Christianity, probably as a rebellion around the death of his mother when he was ten years old. In 1929 he had a conversion experience that eventually led him back to the church in 1931. This journey from atheism to theism to the church was recounted in _Surprised by Joy_, published in 1955.

As many it is with many converts, C.S. Lewis spilled a lot of ink defending the faith. _The Problem of Pain_, _Mere Christianity_, and _The Screwtape Letters_. In these works for art…which they are…he eloquently and imaginatively honors various human realities through the lens of faith.

Most of the world, though, knows him not for his essays, but for his works of fiction and science-fiction. The seven book _Chronicles of Narnia_ and his lesser known _Space Trilogy_ present for humanity a fanciful retelling of Christian faith and morals through a lion who dies yet lives, children who are awake and yet dreaming, honorable mice pirates, witches, and distant planet explorations that are right in your backyard.

It’s widely known that he and his fellow writer, JRR Tolkien, often met to discuss their works over a pint or three. He thought Tolkien was too verbose (he was), and Tolkien thought Lewis was too “on the nose” with his allegories (he was). And yet we’re all better for it all, right?
The works of Lewis that most affected me, though, weren’t any of the above, but two works separated by time yet linked in theme: _The Four Loves_ and _A Grief Observed_.

In _The Four Loves_ Lewis mines the realities of human love, seeking to make a connection between these loves and the deep feelings of the heart. English is such a limiting language. We only have one word for “love,” and yet many ways of feeling it. Lewis goes deep into analysis around this, offering some clarity to what we feel when we say “I love you.”

In _A Grief Observed_, though, Lewis is at his most vulnerable, most bare, most thoughtful (at least in my opinion). He wrote this reflection on grief after the death of his wife, Joy Davidman Gresham, after they had only been married four years. Here St. Lewis is less apologist for the faith and more barrister with faith and fairness of life put on slow, subtle trial. Gone is the idealism of the new convert, and in its place we find an honest conversation between C.S. Lewis and a faith that he considered an old friend that kind of let him down (though the work does end on a hopeful note).

It is real. It is honest. And, in my opinion, is required reading.

St. Lewis died on this day in 1963 at his home in Oxford.

One of my favorite notions of his, which I believe to be totally true, is found in _The Screwtape Letters_ where the young demon being tutored by penpal is told that “God only coaxes, and cannot coerce.”

God only coaxes, and cannot coerce.

St. C.S. Lewis is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that story has always been a way that we learn about the Divine.

And always will be.

-historical bits from Pfatteicher’s _New Book of Festivals & Commemorations_
-opinions mine
-icon written by Claudia Kilby

When the Church Fought Nationalism

Today the church honors one of our moveable feast days, Christ the King Sunday, also known as Reign of Christ Sunday.

In 1922 the world was still reeling from World War I. Pope Pius XI, in his first official encyclical, said that while war hostilities had stopped, global tension was ever present. He decried the rise of nationalism across the globe.

Gonna say that louder for people in the back: the rise of nationalism across the world was seen as a real and present danger.

So Pope Pius XI, as a call for the church to take a stand against nationalism and extremism, instituted the last Sunday of the liturgical year to be a reminder for the world that our private ideologies and personal saviors will not, in the end, accomplish the peace necessary for humanity to thrive.

Only Divine peace can do that.

Now, I’m not a fan of this particular Sunday. To tag it on at the end of the liturgical year feels forced in many ways, and the readings are totally non-sequitur (though they fit with the theme of the day).

However, when seen through the lens of the original intent, especially in these days, it can be a corrective day for a humanity that is once again in the throes of nationalism, much of it housed in the pews of the church.

Nationalism is anti-Christ. There is no work around here; it just is. It puts hope in nativist ideology and not shared peacemaking.

Christ the King Sunday is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that there was a time when the church took on the rise of nationalism with a full throat.

And it could again.

-icon written by Vasilije Minić

Leaders Get the Short End of the Stick Sometimes

I happen to share my birthday with the saint day of a young British king, King Edmund of Anglia, Warrior and Martyr.

St. Edmund’s life was short but notable. He ascended to the throne at the age of fifteen. His lands were continually attacked by Viking raiders, and St. Edmund regularly led his soldiers in battle.

In 869 he led those soldiers for one final time against the Danish raiders and was summarily defeated. The Vikings offered peace on two conditions: that Edmund give the Danes half of his treasure and that he become a vassal prince.

St. Edmund agreed to give up half his treasure, but would only become a vassal if the Danes renounced their religion and were baptized.

The Vikings laughed, refused, and decided to use St. Edmund for target practice instead.

St. Edmund was the patron saint of Britain until the Third Crusade, when St. George became the patron protector. Still, he’s widely thought of as a good and brave leader, young as he was when he was killed.

St. Edmund is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes a leader gets the short end of the stick when they stick to their convictions.

And sometimes that has to happen.

Great Mystics

On November 19th three 13th Century German mystics are honored by the church, two Matildas and a Gert: Mechtild of Magdeburg, Mechtild of Hackeborn, and Gertrude the Great, Visionaries of the Church.

Mechtild of Magdeburg (“Matilda” is the Anglicized version of the name) was descended from nobility. She left home in her 20’s to join a Beguine community (a lay sisterhood leading religiously pious lives), and adopted a rigid austerity. She spoke harshly against the excesses of the church and the clergy, believing that greed was corrupting the message of the Gospel. She also believed the clergy were poorly trained and advocated for stricter requirements for the priesthood.

She began having visions and dreams, and wrote them down in a poetic work entitled The Flowing Light of the Godhead, one of the best examples of female authorship to survive the Middle Ages.

Mechtild of Hackeborn was the sister of the Baroness of Hackeborn, and in charge of the monastery school in the area. She was a fabulous instructor (and would instruct Gertrude the Great, mentioned below), who shared her spiritual insight, teachings, and experiences with her students. The work The Book of Special Grace, made public after her death, records these mystical visions as remembered by her beloved students. She loved to sing her visions, being called a “nightingale of Christ.”

Gertrude the Great was entrusted to the Cistercian foundation at Helfta a the age of five, and came under the tutelage of Mechtild of Hackeborn there. She quickly became fluent in Latin, was well educated in the liberal arts, and well read in literature and the sciences of the times. At the age of twenty-five she, too, began having mystical visions and dreams which continued throughout the whole of her life. At their onset she began to study Augustine, Bernard, and Hugh of Clairvaux (interestingly enough, our own Blessed Martin Luther favored these scholars as well). She went on to compose the Legatus Divinae Pietatis, widely considered one of the best products of Christian mysticism.

Gertrude the Great’s mystical visions almost all happened during the liturgy, and she felt that worship was the spring that fed her spirituality.

These three great mystics of the church are a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes the most obscure individuals hold the grandest insights. I’ve long said that the best sermons preached on any given Sunday are preached to less than fifty people.

It’s true.

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

-icon is of Mechtild of Magdeburg