Not All Pastors Serve Churches

Today I would lobby hard that the church remember a contemporary saint who just recently was welcomed into eternity: Frederick Buechner, Pastor, Author and Imagination Specialist.

I should begin by noting that Buechner did not die on this date, and usually saints are remembered on their holy exits. But because he died on the Feast of Saint Mary (August 15th), it is sometimes customary to transfer a feast when it falls on a previous one, especially one of great importance. Because we honor Mary on the 15th and Saint Stephen of Hungary on the 16th, and the 17th really doesn’t have a special saint (in my opinion), Saint Frederick Buechner makes so much sense.

Frederick was actually born Carl Frederick in 1926 in New York City. His father was often searching for work, and so Frederick (as he preferred to be called) didn’t have a very stable home life, constantly on the move. This instability intensified when his father died by suicide in 1936 when Frederick was only 10 years old. His family immediately moved to Bermuda, where things were relatively stable for a few years until they had to evacuate at the outset of World War II. Regardless, Bermuda felt like home for this young one.

Returning to the mainland, Buechner enrolled in school with an interest in writing, going on to Princeton (which was briefly interrupted by service in the Army), and graduated with a B.A. in English. In his senior year he won an award for poetry and began work on his first novel, A Long Day’s Dying. Published in 1950 it was a critical success. Shortly thereafter he left teaching, moved to New York City, and resolved himself to being a writer full time.

In New York City he continued to have success and reaped awards, but his interests expanded from just writing to now including religion in the mix. Having gotten involved in his local Presbyterian parish, he heard one Sunday from Pastor Buttrick a sermon and call that would compel him to enter seminary.

Note to pastors: sometimes this happens…words matter.

He entered Union Seminary in New York and became a pastor without a parish, having been invited to start a religion department at Phillips Exeter Academy.

Saint Buechner would serve Exeter for nine years, honing his preaching and continuing his prolific writing. He moved to Vermont in 1967 and once again dedicated his life and time to writing.

Buechner had the amazing ability to create characters that were imbued with honesty, spirit, and a good dash of humor, never making the religions symbolism or subtext (found in a lot of his work) a stumbling block to just a plain, good story. I’m not in love with all of his work, but how could you be?! He wrote so much. And not just novels, but plays, poetry, essays…the man was a writing machine, and the world is better for it.

Sometimes it’s just nice to have a novel that is not “religious” and yet it is, you know? It plumbs those depths in interesting and inviting ways. A few writers can do this well, in my opinion, Buechner chief amongst them. He was never dogmatic, but always inviting you deeper and deeper into the existential-yet-hopeful shrug of what it means to be alive with other humans.

Saint Frederick died on August 15th, 2022 at the age of 96. Though he never served a parish, I have to think those of us who read his novels, spiritual writings, and poetry were his pew-sitters, marveling at the wonder of the characters and thoughts he brought into being.

Saint Frederick Buechner is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes serving a parish isn’t the end-all and be-all of pastoral work. In fact, his own Pastor Buttrick once quipped, at the thought of Buechner serving a parish, “It would be a shame to lose a great novelist in exchange for a mediocre preacher.”

In other words: not all pastors serve parishes. And that’s ok. This is most certainly true.

-historical bits taken from public access sources

The Crown is Heavy

Today the church remembers a saint with an interesting, if sordid, legacy: Saint Stephen of Hungary, King and Confessor.

Saint Stephen was born into royalty in the second half of the 900’s, and was baptized with his father when he was just five years old. He ascended to his father’s title of Duke and, having brought the people of Hungary together and brought order to the area, he was given a crown by Pope Sylvester II and was crowned the first king of Hungary on Christmas Day, 1001 A.D.

This crown given to him proved a bit controversial. It disappeared in the 1200’s and a replacement crown, with a skewed cross, was manufactured and made its way to the United States at the end of World War II in 1945. In 1978 the crown was returned to Hungary after Communism in the country collapsed.

Ok, back to Saint Stephen…

So, Saint Stephen was at a crossroads as a king. Would he follow the Eastern Church whose prestige was waning and in-fighting causing it to be quarrelsome? Or would he go with Rome and methodically create a theo-imperial system of rule?

Having one foot in both camps, he eventually went with Rome and adopted the Western church as the rite of Hungary’s Christian expression. He was aggressive in his conversion tactics, however, and that aggression was met with aggression by the pagan inhabitants of his kingdom who really didn’t like to be forced to do, or believe, anything.

In the end Saint Stephen’s efforts would be hampered by his own family, as the infighting of his relatives over who would succeed him put a stain on his legacy, and the Hungarian expression of the church. His son Emeric, being cultivated for the crown, died in a hunting accident in 1031, and Saint Stephen himself fell into ill health in his last years.

All the same Saint Stephen is honored in Hungary as the first king and is remembered fondly in Hungary to this day.

Saint Stephen is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that crowns are heavy. Sometimes you just have to do your best and let history decide.

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

Proud Mary

Today the church celebrates the life and work of probably the most influential saint, St. Mary, God-Bearer and Apostle.

Mary appears in fits and spurts throughout the different Gospels, getting the most ink spilled on her in the Gospel of Luke. This is not surprising, of course, as Luke has a heart for the ministry of women and people on the margins. Mary falls into both categories, Beloved.

Mary is so relatable.

She is a teen mother, pregnant out of wedlock, which put her at odds with societal norms.

She is a revolutionary, singing the Magnificat in the face of world powers destined to conspire against her and her family.

She is an immigrant parent, willing to do what it takes to keep her family alive, fleeing in the night to Egypt when Bethlehem was unsafe.

She is a proud parent, standing with her son through his peaks and valleys of life, urging people to listen to him when they are reluctant.

She is a worried parent, sometimes urging her boy to stay quiet in the face of opposition because she didn’t want to find him dead on the streets.

She is a grieving mother, not turning away even as her son was wrongly put on death row, dying in the hands of fearful power brokers.

While many revere Mary because she was Jesus’ mother, I revere her because she is me. She is my mother. She is the radical I aspire to emulate, and the parent I long to be.

(Artwork by Polish artist and LGBTQ activist in Częstochowa. A radical in the footsteps of Mary, he’s been widely persecuted for this icon.)

To Give Up One’s Life for a Friend…

Today the church remembers a contemporary saint whose life was one of self-giving love: Saint Maximilian Mary Kolbe, Priest, Martyr, and Defender of the Defenseless.

Born in the last years of the 19th Century in Lodz, Poland, Raymond Kolbe joined a Franciscan order in his early teens, taking the names Maximilian and Mary, a testament to his devotion to Christ’s mother.

Saint Max (as I like to call him) left his Russian-ruled stretch of Poland to study in Rome, was ordained there, and taught church history for a time. Mission and evangelism caught his attention, and he began a movement to create friaries and publications for the propagation of Roman Catholicism throughout the world. His friaries in Poland, Japan, and India housed hundreds of Franciscans in the early 20th Century.

When Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, Saint Max’s friary in Warsaw took in thousands of Polish citizens and fifteen hundred Jews, providing sanctuary from the occupying forces. Because he sheltered those being demonized, and because his publications encouraged people to be faithful to the church, not to Nazi nationalism, Saint Max was taken to Auschwitz with four of his fellow friars, and the friary was permanently closed.

At Auschwitz Saint Max continued to be a priest: hearing confessions and celebrating the Mass with contraband bread and wine.

In July of 1941 a prisoner from Kolbe’s bunk escaped and, as punishment, ten prisoners from the same bunk were selected for death as a deterrent to such action. One of the men, Sergeant Francis Gajowniczek, was married with a family on the outside. Having served Sergeant Francis communion for years, Saint Max knew this about him and offered up his life in exchange for his fellow prisoner.

The guards allowed it, as Sergeant Francis was young and strong and by now Saint Max was elderly and weaker.

The ten prisoners were thrown in isolation to die slow deaths by starvation. After two weeks the guards checked on the men, and only Saint Max and one other were still alive. Not waiting for nature to take its course, Saint Max was injected with carbolic acid on this day in 1941.

Saint Max is a reminder to me, and should be for the whole church, that when the powers want to force you to turn your back on your fellow humans, no matter their creed, you disobey…even if it costs you your life.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

You can visit a shrine dedicated to this saint in Libertyville, IL called “Marytown.” There you’ll learn more about his life, his theological genius, and yes, his defiant death.

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

-icon is available for purchase at monasteryicons.com

Until the Last Patient is Home

Today the church honors a yet timely saint, Florence Nightingale, nurse and caretaker of humanity.

Born to wealthy parents, Florence was named for the Italian city in which she was birthed, though her parents formally lived in estates in Derbyshire and London. She was a quick study, and grew to know more than a few languages by the time she was twenty.

Unsatisfied with the kept and proper life, Florence said she heard God telling her to “complete her life’s mission,” though she couldn’t rightly determine what that specific mission was.

Her schooling made her an acknowledged expert on public health (and it appears that people listened to her!), and she became keenly interested in the Kaiserwerth Motherhouse of Deaconesses. She soon entered the school for training as a nurse, and in 1853 became the superintendent of the Institution for the Care of Sick Gentlewomen (brevity was not their strong suit when it came to naming organizations in those days).

Nightingale was dissatisfied with the hospital, however, and when the Crimean war broke out, she and 38 fellow nurses left for Turkey to lend their aid. There they found shocking conditions and misogynist doctors who treated them poorly. But as the war progressed, the pressing need of so many wounded forced the hands of the powers that be, and Miss Nightingale and her fellow nurses worked long and hard to tend to the injured.

From this scene came the iconic “lady with the lamp” depiction.

She eventually would rise in rank to become the superintendent of the Female Nursing Establishment of the Military Hospitals of the British Army in 1856, and she wouldn’t leave Turkey until the very last patient left for England.

She was the last one in the field.

She worked against the political powers of the day to greatly improve the health and living conditions of the soldiers she worked so hard to heal.

Florence herself would eventually fall ill to chronic brucellosis, but even from her sickbed continued to advise and counsel nurses and doctors through letters and consultations. In 1860 she established the Nightingale School for Nurses at St. Thomas Hospital, and soon shifted her focus to changing the terrible conditions in the many workhouses in Britain.

In 1907 she was awarded the Order of Merit, the first woman to be given such distinction, and died in 1910 at the age of 90. Her grave marker simply states, “F.N. Born 1820. Died 1910.”

St. Florence Nightingale is a reminder to me that a life curved outward, rather than inward, can continually and forcefully change the situation of many in the world when consistently applied, especially in the face of the many “isms” of this world. The powers will pull out all the stops to thwart the efforts of those who would lift up the vulnerable in the world.

In these past few years of global pandemic, with so many nurses staying on the job until their last patient is sent home, she is not just worth remembering, but worth honoring and emulating.

One way to honor such a legacy is by following the advice of medical officials.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

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

Martyrdom Complexes are For the Birds

Today the Church honors one of my favorite saints, Saint Clare of Assisi. She is the unsung spiritual companion of St. Francis (who gets much more airtime because humans love animals), but deserves as much, if not more, press.

St. Clare was born to a noble family, and in an era where women had limited power, had the gumption and guts to turn down not one, but two marriage proposals.

In her late teens she heard St. Francis preach a sermon during Lent, and soon after ran away from home to join him in a life of poverty. Francis commended her to the care of Benedictine nuns at Bastia, and though her family pleaded with her to come home, she eventually convinced both her sister, and later her widowed mother, to join her instead.

Clare and Francis collaborated together on a new “rule of life” for a monastic community, and after obtaining Pope Innocent III’s blessing, established the “Poor Clares” who would live solely on the generosity of others, never possessing anything.

Though St. Clare was intent on living in a post-ownership society, she also understood that savage piety could produce a backhanded vanity. “We are not made of brass,” she said once to an overzealous sister, reminding the order that poverty was a gift, not a quest or competition. Human bodies can handle only so much deprivation.

St. Clare led her community for forty years, becoming seriously ill a number of times. Yet, she outlived her best friend and spiritual soul-mate, St. Francis, by twenty-seven years. Her order lives on today.

St. Clare is a reminder for me of a couple truths:

First, the spotlight unfairly falls on men in history. Clare was inspired by Francis, but more fully lived into his ideal vision of a monastic life than he ever did. She is the shining example of what he preached was a good way to live.

Second, piety can be just as competitive as gluttony in the hands of the overzealous. Martyrdom complexes are as sinful as extravagance. Clare’s call was to humility, not destitution.

Finally, never underestimate the ability to move someone when words and actions hold hands. Clare looked not only to the sermon Francis preached, but to the sermon he embodied, and was motivated to do something life-changing.

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

Humor as a Spiritual Gift

Today the church honors a 3rd Century Deacon, St. Lawrence of Rome.

Lawrence was the chief of the seven deacons of Rome, charged with distributing the wealth and food of the Church to the poor.

In 257 Emperor Valerian began a massive campaign of persecution against the Church. All properties of the Church were confiscated, and worship was forbidden. Pope Sixtus II, who had just been the Bishop of Rome for a year, was apprehended in a cemetery along with his seven deacons as they were celebrating the liturgy, and all but Lawrence were beheaded and buried there.

Lawrence was left alive because, as the head Deacon, he knew where the Church had hidden the store of charitable gifts and treasures. He was tortured for three days, and then martyred on the 10th of August.

Lore around Lawrence’s martyrdom is legion, and though the topic is tragic and terrible, the stories of this witty Deacon are amusing all the same.

When told to go gather up the treasures of the Church, Lawrence ran from the cemetery and assembled a great number of paupers, orphans, widows, and the maimed, assembled them at the palace, and said, “Here is the treasure of the Church!”

Tradition claims Lawrence was sentenced to a long and painful death for his stunt, and as he was being tortured over a fire said, “I’m done on this side. Turn me over!”

It is not an accident that so much lore surrounds Lawrence’s execution. For Rome to execute a Roman citizen in such a way was shocking to the early church. Even citizenship couldn’t save them! The stories provided insight and relief in the shadow of such brutality.

Less Lawrence himself, but more-so the stories about him are a reminder to me, and should be to the church, that humor is a spiritual gift, and that while the world searches after gold, the Church should be finding ways to distribute it to those it is taken from.

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

-icon written by Theophilia at deviantart.com

Empathy

Today the church remembers an obscure German philosopher turned nun: Saint Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, Genius, Scholar, and Holocaust Victim.

Born 1891, Edith Stein came into the world to a Jewish family in what is now modern day Poland. Though her family was observant in most every way, Edith abandoned any belief in God by her early teens…a story many families can relate to, no? In the shadow of World War I Edith went to nursing school and then became fascinated with the theme of empathy and the human response to hurt, fear, and pain. At the age of 23 she received her doctorate, using the exploration of empathy as her thesis.

Fascinating, no?

During her college years she began exploring the life of St. Teresa of Avila and, falling in love with that passion and faith, was baptized in 1922. She had originally wanted to enter monastic life then, but instead went on to teach at a Catholic University.

In 1933 when proof of “unaltered European heritage” became a criteria for civil service, Edith was forced out of her teaching position due to her Jewish lineage. Seeing this an opportunity to do what her heart was telling her to do, she became a postulate at the Discalced Carmelite monastery in Cologne and, on the Feast of St. Teresa of Avila in 1934 received the habit as a novice in the order, taking on the name of her spiritual mentor, Teresa Benedicta a Cruces. In 1938 she completed her vows.

Because the persecution of the Jewish people, and anyone of Jewish heritage, became seen as a central theme of the Nazi Regime, Saint Teresa and her sister Rosa, also a convert, were sent to Echt in Netherlands to hopefully go undetected by the Gestapo. In 1942, however, the Dutch Bishops’ Conference published a letter read in all Dutch churches that condemned the Nazi treatment of the Jewish people, and in retaliation the Gestapo made a concerted effort to round up all Jewish converts to Catholicism.

St. Teresa and Rosa were sent to Auschwitz on August 7th, 1942.

St. Teresa had been preparing her body and mind for a concentration camp for some time, periodically starving herself and sleeping without sheets in the cold. Her preparation, however, was in vain.

On this day, August 9th, after surviving the deportation to Auschwitz, St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross and so many others were killed in a gas chamber.

St. Teresa was formally sainted by Pope John Paul II in 1988, and is considered one of six patron saints of Europe. Her name and memory graces more than a few European museums, and her life’s story has been dramatized as a play here in America.

Still, the most remarkable thing about St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross, at least to me, is how she knew she wasn’t going to survive the war, and yet continued on with her work.

St. Teresa Benedicta of the Cross is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that sometimes we continue on with our good work even if we know it won’t last forever.

Indeed, perhaps because we do this, it finds a way to last past death, no?

Perhaps it was empathy that allowed her to do so…and might allow us to as well.

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

-historical bits from publicly accessible information

-icon written by Jenn Norton

Power isn’t Overcome by More Power

Today the church remembers St. Dominic, Priest and Friar.

This 13th Century contemporary of St. Francis would blaze a similar path through the church and the world as his animal-loving brother, taking action against the corruption and laxity he observed in the religious halls of power through a call to renewed living, teaching, and love.

Wealth had, in his estimation, jeopardized the church and its ability to speak truthfully and honestly in the world. He was also alarmed at the number of Christians subscribing to the belief that Jesus only existed in spirit, and therefore was never incarnate. This belief encouraged the faithful to see all matter as inherently evil, denying the goodness of creation.

In response he organized a movement of poor, itinerant preachers who took quite seriously Jesus’ words in Matthew 10. These women and men (Dominic also started an order of nuns along with his male devotees) went throughout the world preaching and teaching, extolling the beauty and wonder of creation and incarnation, combating the heresy through conversation, sermons, and faithful living.

Meanwhile, the Pope began a crusade of fear-mongering and violence to tamp out those viewed as heretics, padding his coffers as he did so.

These opposing approaches to the same issue presents a clear ideological divergence that, unfortunately, still presents itself today in the world. Will issues be tackled through force, “law and order,” and intimidation? Or will leaders raise up more leaders to pave paths of peace in the midst of confusion?

Dominic’s order was eventually blessed by Pope Honorious III in 1216, and is officially known as the Order of Friars Preachers (hence why Dominicans have “O.P.” following their name in official documents, “Order of Preachers”). You’ll know a Dominican because they wear a black robe over a white tunic, which got them their other name, “Black Friars.”

Dominicans are known for being cerebral and pious, and the best known product from this order is probably St. Thomas Aquinas.

As I noted above, Dominic is a reminder for the church, and the world, that power cannot be overcome by more power, in the end. There is always someone more powerful, Beloved…or one who will become more powerful.

Power must be outsmarted not by dominating through the muscles of the arm, but by being wooed through the muscle that is the heart.

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

Humans are Meant to Create

Today would encourage the church to remember one who, though not a Christian, helped shape a culture and nation: Rabindranath Tagore, Poet, Author, and Activist.

Before we do a brief little glimpse at Tagore, I think it’s worth noting why I think the church should remember those even outside their own flock. If we are to imagine that the stream of time includes many ripples, some of those ripples will be from rocks we’ve thrown in, and yet others will be from rocks on other banks that bump into our own ripples, creating new patterns.

Tagore is one such social ripple maker (and his poetry graces my bookshelf), and so like Gandhi and Gamaliel, he’s worth lifting up!

Born in the second half of the 19th Century, Tagore is Bengali by birth, and his legacy is held by both Bangladesh and India as culturally significant. He was born into a high class, and though his mother desired that he become a barrister (and, indeed, he was sent to England to study for it), his heart was that of a poet. From the age of eight he was writing poetry, and even published his first book of poems under a pseudonym at the age of sixteen.

As you can imagine when a poet is trying to study law, he didn’t stay long in school. He returned to Bengal without a degree, and began publishing poems, short stories, and novels. While in England he became enthralled with Shakespeare, and the complex characters he encountered there shaped his own writing.

In 1912 Tagore gained international fame, though it followed on personal tragedy. His wife, two of his children, and his father all died in a relatively short period of time in the years prior, and in the midst of this heartache he translated one of his famous poetry books, Gitanjali, into English. W.B. Yeats and Ezra Pound took notice, and he won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1913. He was also offered Knighthood for his work, but renounced it in 1919 in reaction to the massacre of Bengali people at the hands of British forces.

Tagore saw that Indian independence was a moral movement, though he resisted any strong nationalism, seeing that as an inherently dangerous idea. In his view nationalism would cut India off from other countries, making them an island unto themselves, which would make them insular.

Those with ears to hear, hear.

Even though he stood with Gandhi in the movement for Indian independence, he and Gandhi disagreed on the tactics by which to achieve that independence, often feeling that Gandhi was too radical, and the poor locals on the ground felt the forceful fist of those actions.

Along with social activism, Tagore helped to create alternative schools, encouraging alternative ways of learning for the local children. He spoke out against the caste system, and lobbied that all castes get access to the temples and cultural gems that India offered.

As Tagore aged he became less and less enamored with religion as a system, and saw the divisions it caused as doing more harm than good. He also began to more intentionally explore science, and began to weave his stories into the scientific community through essays and fanciful scientific biographies in the 1930’s.

In 1937 Tagore fell comatose, and remained in that way for many years, briefly recovering some abilities, and then failing again in 1940. He died on this day in 1941.

Tagore had his fingers in all creative works: from drama, to poetry, to novels and stories, to hymn writing and paintings. Tagore felt like exploration was part of a human’s calling in life, and he dared to fulfill it.

Rabindranath Tagore is a reminder for me, and should be for everyone, that exploration is part of humanity’s calling in life.

So go create, by God!

-historical bits from publicly accessible sources

-icon is Tagore’s own self-portrait