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

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

He Wrestled with Evil

Today the church remembers a contemporary saint who took wrestling with demons, both in his heart and in his country, seriously: St. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Teacher, Martyr, Gadfly of the Nazis.

Born at the turn of the 20th Century in Breslau, St. Dietrich grew up in the intellectual circles of Germany. He studied hard, was trained as a scholar and theologian, and as a young pastor he moved to both Barcelona (where he was assistant pastor at a German-speaking congregation) and then to New York City where he was a visiting lecturer at Union Seminary.

It was during his time in New York that he felt his guts calling him to return home to Europe, the belly of a waking beast, and fight for the soul of his people from the inside. As the Nazi party ascended in 1933, the growing anti-Semitism was alarming to him as a person of faith. From 1933-1935 he served as the pastor of two small German congregations in London, but became the voice of the Confessing Church, the Protestant resistance to the Nazi party’s coopting of the national church. He made his way back to his homeland with both conviction and trepidation.

In 1935 St. Bonhoeffer organized a new underground seminary to train theologians in the art of subversive resistance (because the Divine is subversive!), and he began publishing the thoughts flowing from his heart in this difficult, hidden work. Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship describe the role a Christian is called to play in times of turmoil, and he encouraged his fellow believers to reject the “cheap grace” that smacked of moral laxity.

In 1939 St. Dietrich was introduced to a cadre of political exiles who sought to overthrow Hitler. Working with other church leaders throughout the world, including the Bishop of Chichester, St. Bonhoeffer tried to broker peace deals, but to no avail. Hitler could not be trusted to keep his word, and so the Allies would only accept unconditional surrender.

Bonhoeffer was arrested on April 5th, 1943, shortly after proposing to the love of his life. An attempt on Hitler’s life had failed the previous year, and documents were discovered linking St. Dietrich to the plot.

After a short stay in the Berlin jail, Bonhoeffer was taken to Buchenwald concentration camp, and then on to Schonberg prison. There he wrote letters to his best friend and his fiance, and conducted pastoral duties for the prisoners there.

On Sunday, April 8th, 1945, just after he concluded church services, two men with weapons emerged from the forest, not unlike the soldiers in the Garden of Gethsemane. They said, “Prisoner Bonhoeffer, come with us!”

Bonhoeffer, putting up no fight, said to his fellow prisoner, “This is the end. For me, the beginning of life.”

He was hanged in Flossenburg prison on April 9, 1945.

St. Bonhoeffer wrestled deeply with evil in the world. He was a pacifist theologian, and yet he involved himself in the plot to destroy Hitler because he felt that to not do so would be a greater evil than the man’s death.

St. Dietrich Bonhoeffer is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church (everyone?!), that wrestling with evil must be something everyone does with honesty and conviction, and that sometimes it comes at a price that can be quite high.

Grace is free, but not cheap.

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

-note that sometimes I use the phrase “saint” in the Protestant definition of the word: someone who has died in the faith. Bonhoeffer is not canonized by any official means, just within the hearts of those of us who trust subversion to be the ways of the Divine

-icon written by Kelly Latimore. You can buy his amazing work at https://kellylatimoreicons.com/

Church and the Arts

Today the church remembers a slew of 16th Century artists: Durer, Cranach the Elder, Grunewald, and Michelangelo. Though one could go in-depth on all of them, I’m going to focus this year on the one who is (probably) least well-known, and yet so influential: St. Matthias Grunewald, Artist and Secret Reformer.

We don’t know much about St. Grunewald. His name is even a fabrication, thought up by a 17th Century biographer for the enigmatic artist. His original surname was Gothardt, and he often added his spouses surname (Neithardt) to his signatures.

He spent most of his life in the upper Rhine area, and most of his professional career was under the patronage of the Bishop of Mainz and then Albrecht of Brandenburg. His artistic bent was (like most of his contemporaries) religious in nature, and he found the crucifixion and the resurrection as particularly curious events for visual exploration.

Though he was under the patronage of Rome, Grunewald was a professed admirer and supporter of the Reformation movement sweeping through the world of his day.

Many may not be familiar with his name today, but his works are worth checking out. I find them grotesquely fascinating; not as playful as Cranach’s and not as Gothic as Durer, but more mystical (perhaps) like an older Dali.

You might also want to check out the Grunewald Guild in Washington State, a community dedicated to careful artistic exploration. A number of colleagues spent time there in college and/or seminary, stretching their artistic muscles (or forming them from scratch): https://grunewaldguild.com/about-the-guild/

Finally, because finding a painting or an icon of St. Grunewald has proven unsuccessful, above is his depiction of the Resurrection. I thought it appropriate as we head toward Easter.

St. Grunewald is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that art has always held hands with religion. The church was one of the first incubators for stunning creativity…and could be today, by God, if they keep dogma from squashing invention.

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

-opinions mine

Friend of the Blue Collar

Today the church remembers a 16th Century saint who deserves more nods than he typically receives: St. Benedict the African, Friar, Friend of the Blue Collar, and Champion of Humility.

note: St. Benedict shares a feast day with St. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4th but, because it is shared, is usually transposed to the 5th to stand alone

St. Benedict the African was born in 1526 in Messina, Italy as the son of slaves who were converted to Christianity. He was under forced servitude until he was eighteen and, once granted his freedom, made his living as a day laborer. Though he made little money at his work, he shared most of his wages with those who made less than him, and he devoted much of his off time to caring for the sick and infirm.

His race and status in Italy made him the focus of much ridicule and scorn, but his reputation for handling the derision with fortitude and undeserved grace spread. He attracted the attention of Jerome Lanzi, a devotee of St. Francis of Assisi, and St. Benedict was encouraged to join Lanzi’s group of hermits, living a life of piety.

Lanzi died not long afterward, and St. Benedict reluctantly took the helm of the lay order, leading his fellow hermits as they served those who had no one to help them. When Pope Pius IV directed all informal monastic groups to identify with established orders, St. Benedict linked the hermitage with the Franciscans, and he was assigned to serve in the kitchen.

Doing his duties with careful attention and pride, St. Benedict found small ways to enliven the lives of his fellow brothers, and he shunned the lime-light. St. Benedict, throughout his life, wanted to embody the meek way.

In 1578 this brother without formal education (he was unable to read) was appointed as guardian of his Friary. Every account notes that he was the ideal superior: quick witted, theologically profound, gentle, and attuned to the sacredness of life. He often chose to travel in humble ways, at night or with his face covered, not wanting too much attention for his work. He had the scriptures memorized, and he was known for teaching the teachers in many ways.

Toward the end of his life, St. Benedict asked to be removed from his position as guardian of the Friary, and wanted to be reassigned to the kitchen. He died in 1589, and is enshrined still today as a saint worth emulating.

St. Benedict the African is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that education, family, and status are poor indicators of leadership in many ways. Resumes are ego documents that don’t reflect the spiritual sensibilities of an applicant.

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