It Could Be Again…

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 in 1925 that the last Sunday of the liturgical year would 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

Sometimes You Get the Short End of the Stick

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.

Visionaries

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

They’ve Always Been There

Today the church remembers another delightfully obscure saint who, because of her Celtic heritage and bent, has carved a nice niche in my own heart: St. Hilda, Abbess of Whitby, Sage of the Ages.

St. Hilda was a Northumbrian princess who was born in the early 7th Century. She was raised in the Christian faith and baptized at the age of thirteen in York. She lived her early years as a member of the King’s court, where she was respected for her insight, and eventually entered into monastic life at the age of thirty-three.

In the year 649 she was appointed Abbess of Hartlepool by St. Aiden, and a few years later went on to found a “double house” in Whitby, a monastery for both men and women, of which she became Abbess. The monastery grew in reputation due to the wise scholarship taught there.

It was here at Whitby in 664 that a meeting took place where the gathered religious elites argued on what to do with the divide between those following Celtic-Christian traditions (earth-oriented, feminine-friendly, wisdom-focused, egalitarian), and those who followed the Roman-Christian traditions (male-centered, punitive, dogmatic, strictly hierarchical, forced piety).

The Synod resulted in a union between the two philosophies, though Hilda remained favorable to the Celtic way of being.

Nevertheless, she was obedient to the decision of the council, and incorporated Roman thought into her official teachings. But, in her practice, she was Celtic to the core. She was known for being wise, and many people would come to her seeking sage advice. The Venerable Bede held her in extremely high regard. She insisted that those preparing for the priesthood study the scriptures, and felt that proper readiness for the office included extending peace and charity beyond the monastery walls.

The towns people, as well as her monastic companions, all called her “Mother.”

In the last years of her life a lingering illness festered and finally took her. She died on November 17th in 680, but due to the number of saints already honored on the 17th of November, St. Hilda received her own date, the 18th, her resurrection morning.

St. Hilda is a reminder for me, and should be for the church, that wisdom is not found in adhering to dogma, that peace and charity are necessary for clergy, and that while much of the church, and much of its history, has a problem with women in positions of power, they have always been there and should always be there.

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

-icon from deviantart.com/angelboi-red

Make an Impact

Today the church celebrates the brief life of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia, Princess of Hungary and Friend of the Outcast.

You’ve never heard of Saint Elizabeth of Thuringia? That’s not surprising. Nestled in the middle days of November, she’s not widely known. But this 13th Century royal made a great impact to those she cared for in her short twenty four years of life.

She was the daughter of King Andrew of Hungary, and was betrothed at the age of one to the son of a local noble whose name was Ludwig. This sealed the political alliance between the king and the count.

She was known to be serious and generous, and even at an early age showed a devout faith. Ludwig was fond of her, despite the forced marriage.

They were married when Elizabeth was fourteen (Ludwig was twenty one) and had three children. Their marriage, by all accounts, was a happy one, and Ludwig supported St. Elizabeth in her increasing generosity. For instance, during a regional famine, Elizabeth gave away most of her own fortune and grain to the local poor. She was heavily criticized by other nobles for this, but Ludwig approved.

St. Elizabeth founded two hospitals during her time as Duchess. She regularly tended the sick and the lame herself, and gave money for the specific care of the ill children, particularly orphans. Ludwig followed Elizabeth’s lead, and tried his best to find jobs for those in the area who had trouble earning a living.

In 1221 Franciscan monks came to town, and Elizabeth was immediately drawn to these kind, poor preachers. She came under the tutelage of Brother Rodeger who taught her the way of St. Francis. She took the example so seriously that she ended up taking a leper into her own home to stay the night when he was wandering aimlessly. Ludwig found him in their bed and, though at first startled, understood that Elizabeth was fulfilling her calling.

On September 11th Ludwig died of the plague while on the crusade. Elizabeth left the castle and went to live in Eisenbach where she found a cold welcome from the townspeople. She was eventually taken under the wing of her uncle the Bishop of Bamberg, and on Good Friday in 1228 she officially took her monastic vows, devoting herself to the way of St. Francis. She secured the safety of her children, built a small house near Marburg, and set up a hospice center for the sick, the aged, and the poor.

St. Elizabeth’s life ended in isolation and austerity. Her confessor, Conrad of Marburg, was not a kindly monk, and seemed to take pleasure in forcing Elizabeth to live in harsh conditions. Her health began to fail, and she died not having yet seen her twenty fifth birthday.

So many hospitals around the world are named for this saint.

The Wartburg castle, in which Elizabeth lived for most of her life, would later have a new resident. our own Blessed Martin Luther, who would pen his German translation of the New Testament there.

St. Elizabeth is a reminder for me, and should be for the church, that time is of the essence. We do not have to wait until tomorrow to make an impact, because we’re never confident how many tomorrows we will have.

So, make an impact.

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

-icon by Theophilia at deviantart.com

An Appropriate Pillar of Piety

Today the church remembers an 11th Century pillar of piety who is often overlooked, but deserves some attention: Saint Margaret, Queen of Scotland.

Born of German stock in Hungary because her father had been a victim of political exile, Saint Margaret was of royal lineage as her grandfather had been Edmund Ironside, King of England. In 1057 she was brought back to England in the court of Edward the Confessor, leaning back into her heritage apart from her family of origin.

In 1067 the whole family fled after the Battle of Hastings and were shipwrecked off the coast of Scotland. There King Malcolm III welcomed the family and took romantic interest in Saint Margaret.

They were married, and she effectively became a bridge between two royal lines.

Here’s the thing, though: Margaret didn’t want to be married to anyone but the Church. She longed to be a nun.

Nevertheless, despite this inner desire, all accounts show their marriage a happy one, and they had eight children together who would, for better or for worse, be released into the royal spheres of the world.

The Church of Scotland as Saint Margaret found it was an amalgamation of ancient Celtic ways and Christian ideas (as it still rightly is). Saint Margaret worked hard to reform some of the rougher edges of their practice in order to more seamlessly match the practices of the rest of the Western Church. She took to founding new churches and new monasteries, and was keenly concerned for the welfare of the poor, the sick, and the underclass in Scotland.

Her piety was legendary, and she helped curb her husband the king’s baser instincts, resulting in relatively good rule for the people of Scotland.

Saint Margaret died in Edinburgh Castle on this day in 1093. Some say she died of a broken heart because she had just recently learned that both her husband and her eldest son had been killed on the battlefield. She is buried alongside her husband and son in Dumfermline Abbey.

Saint Margaret is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that appropriate piety is not a bad thing as long as it is focused not on scoffing and the “shalt-nots” too often found in the overly pious, but rather in taking care of the “least of these” in this world.

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

-icon written by Theophilia

Gazer of Stars and Lover of Side-Quests

Today I would urge the church to remember with affection and curiosity a 16th Century astronomer and deep thinker: Johannes Kepler, Seeker of the Divine and Gazer of Stars.

Kepler was born in what is now Germany to a family of fading fortunes. He was technically nobility, but didn’t have the bank account to match the title. While he was sick as a child (having been born premature), he was intellectually curious and showed his obvious genius with numbers at an early age. As a young adult he attended University at Tubingen, studying theology under Jacob Heerbrand (who was, himself, a student of Melanchthon), but while his theological scores were so-so, his mathematical scores were off the (planetary) charts. This was back in the day when astronomy and astrology held hands, and while his numbers were solid, he would pass the time creating horoscopes for his fellow classmates based off of star charts he created himself.

A little side-show is always fun in college.

He would go on to teach mathematics in Graz, and took a fancy in a young widow, Barbara Muller. She was quite wealthy and, though he was of noble stock, was deemed unacceptable to her family. So what did Kepler do? He published a book on mathematics to woo her family into seeing him as worth something.

It worked.

Kepler than began to plot out his life’s publications, much like you might plot out planetary motion (because that would be his main subject). He drew connections between planetary motion and the nature of created order itself, and though through today’s scientific lenses we see many of his connections were nothing more than wishes and guesses, it should be noted that this is one of the ways that science moves forward: by making guesses and testing them.

It does not, however, move forward by ignoring data and replacing it with wishes…as many are wont to do today.

Kepler was using the best data that was available at his time, and he got into a number of discussions with other astronomers and mathematicians, testing one another and prodding each other to do more and do better.

Despite his genius, he wasn’t awesome at making money (probably because he was a teacher and no one was reading planetary physics for fun). He was also wrestling mightily with philosophical questions, particularly around the notion that planets might be “alive” things with souls which imbued them with purpose and reason in their courses.

He thought that the universe was created by a God who wanted to be known through reason, and all we had to do was figure out the logic to figure out the great eternal “why.”

Speaking of the Divine, Kepler refused to convert to Catholicism and, since his teaching appointment at Graz was in a Catholic territory, found his way to Prague (which, though officially Catholic did tolerate some Lutherans who they deemed intellectually valuable) and, through twists and turns and missteps and some crazy theories that didn’t hold water, eventually did find his way into his most productive years as the Imperial Mathematician to the Emperor.

Fortunately this gave him some stability and a place to do his greatest scientific studies. Unfortunately he was basically hired to tell the emperor’s astrological fortune. Regardless, it was a means to a scientific end for him. Through this appointment he came into contact with other great minds, and in 1604 Kepler observed a bright new star (SN 1604) in the sky, a Super Nova. His calculations of the star challenged the assumption that the night sky was essentially “fixed,” noting that new things could happen there all the time. He shrugged off any astrological importance, and leaned into the science encouraging the world to see space not as a tapestry, but as a dynamic system. This emboldened his groundbreaking idea that the planets moved around the sun in elliptical orbits, not straight circular patterns.

He was right about this, and the first to posit it in a way that had mathematical weight.

As a little side-quest, though, he also became obsessed with plotting chronology using the stars as a guide, and attempted to find meaning in the movement of the heavens and the events on Earth (like, oh, how a star just appeared above Bethlehem and was said to appear at the birth of Alexander the Great).

But his ideas weren’t exactly en vogue with a very traditional Lutheranism and Catholicism running around in that day (they thought he might be a secret Calvinist!), and he was eventually excommunicated from the Lutheran church and his mother was brought up on charges of witchcraft, a tactic used back then (and still today!) that tried to mar the reputation of those who disagreed with theological teachings.

Eventually the charges were dropped, though the excommunication stood. He moved to Linz and remarried after the death of Barbara Muller, and fell ill during travel on October 8th in 1630, eventually dying on this day of that year. He was buried in a Protestant churchyard, having been officially rejected by both Lutheranism and Catholicism and, as if to hammer home the reality that the time was politically and religiously fraught, his gravesite was completely destroyed in the 30 Years War.

Kepler was a person on the edge of two worlds. He straddled both imaginative fantasy and mathematical reality. In fact, these two worlds came together in a now lost book Somnium (The Dream) where he wrote about the planets from the perspective of other planets, perhaps the first sci-fi novel of modern history! I hold him with both curiosity and sympathy, with appreciation for his brilliance and a bit of disdain for his tangential side-quests to find the “mind of God” in his work.

In this way, I guess, he’s like most of us: a mix of steps forward, steps side-ways, and blowbacks.

One cool thing about him, though, is that when it came to religion he said very clearly that denominations of every stripe should be able to take communion together. “After all,” he said, “Christ was not a Lutheran, a Calvinist, or a Papist.”

Let those with ears to hear, hear.

Johannes Kepler is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that science moves forward with intelligent guesses that are tested, not ignorant beliefs that are untested. We need to raise up leaders willing to think great thoughts and then test them, not just think untested thoughts and hold them as great.

-historical bits from common source materials

-icon written by Kapil Bhagat

Under the Reed Moon

Tonight as we enter the midway of the month, I’m remembering that in November the ancient Celts found themselves under the Reed Moon.

Each month has a moon, usually named after a tree, corresponding to the attribute that the month brought to the wheel of the year. Now, while reeds are not technically “trees,” November was illumined by the reed moon because reeds, when wound together, created tough blankets that would be used for both floor and roof, for both basket and rope.

They are tough as trees when braided.

Reeds were emblematic of how November was a weaving of worlds, ushered in by Samhain and All Saints, the ancestors and the babies creating a tapestry of existence that was most clearly felt as the shadows lengthened and the hearth blazed. For the ancient Celts life existed far into the past and far into the future, and the cycle of life was always rolling. Reeds reminded them of this: woven together to be one whole, and when wind blew over the open reed they believed they could hear the howling voices of the ancestors calling to them from the other side of the veil.

These, of course, became wind chimes and porch pipes.

The Reed Moon inspires us, with its long night-shine life, to remember those who have gone before, the ache in our bones a reminder of their unseen, but ever-felt, presence.

Keepers of the People

In these mid-November days, I’m reading about the importance of storytelling in Ireland and Scotland, and how it historically has shaped (and continues to shape) a Celtic worldview.

Stories were seen as so powerful that a storyteller invited into a home was said to bring good luck to the dwelling, and they were often paid well for their stories.

Entertainment. Knowledge. Skill and art. Stories and the tellers of them were seen to impart all of these.

But more than that, storytellers were the “keepers of the people.” They remembered the history and, when they told the story, re-membered those listening into that long thread of history.

It’s a shame that storytelling isn’t practiced much as a profession any longer. It’s one of the things that I love about preaching: it’s a chance to tell a (hopefully) good story.

And also a chance to re-member ourselves to one another around a common tale, if just for a moment.

The Saint of Existentialism

In these November days, an “in-between-time” of the year wrestling with whether it is “fall” or “winter”, we honor perhaps my most favorite theologian and saint who embodied wrestling in his questioning of the struggles of human existence, St. Soren Kierkegaard, Writer, Theologian, and the Father of Existentialism..

Soren was born in Copenhagen in the early 19th Century, the seventh child of aged parents. His father, Michael, was a farm laborer who was born in abject poverty but, through toil and a good bit of luck, succeeded at business and became quite wealthy. There is a story that Michael, deeply unhappy with his life, stood on a hill and cursed God one day…which changed his business fortunes but, in his estimation, also gave him terrible heartache. He believed that God blessed him in business but cursed him in life. His wife and five of his seven children died quite early, and Soren only knew his father as a grieved and sad person.

Soren studied theology and quickly got the sense that God, in retribution for his father’s curse, had summarily cursed the whole family. He tried to cut ties with his father, and lived a quite wild life for a bit, but eventually had a religious conversion that sent him back to make amends. His father died in 1838 and left Soren a considerable fortune.

Kierkegaard eventually finished his theological degree (he was a brilliant student), but never sought ordination because, despite all his study, he could never fully make “the leap of faith,” a phrase he would come to coin and use throughout his work.

In 1849 Soren became engaged to the young love of his life, Regine, but following in the footsteps of his ever-grieved father, was troubled and broke off the engagement when he struggled making sense of inviting someone to share his unhappy existence, this “curse” he felt was still very present.

Breaking off his engagement sent Soren further into a deep and shadowed depression where he publicly (in writing) wrestled with how we know anything at all with certainty.

He began publishing thoughtful works in earnest, using a nom de plume: Either-Or, Fear and Trembling, The Concept of Dread, and many others. The public assumed these were works of fanciful, thoughtful, fiction, but in fact they were Kierkegaard wrestling with life.

As a writer, Kierkegaard became open to public scrutiny, and was engaged in more than a few public feuds with other publications who viewed his work as ridiculous or the mad thoughts of a rich kid who had too much time on his hands. Soren did not take to being mocked, and argued bitterly against his detractors…and all this sent him further into a pit of despair.

His final issue, though, came when Kierkegaard heard officials from the Danish church spout what he identified as sterile theology. Never being able to quite embrace an orthodox faith, Kierkegaard still knew a theology of smoke and mirrors when he saw one, and became quite critical of a church that he felt didn’t take anything seriously and looked to keep people quiet and tamed more than encourage them to adopt deep, thoughtful wrestling.

Soren, in his despair and distress, one day collapsed in the streets of Copenhagen at the age of 42. Doctors diagnosed him with some sort of bone disease, and a month after his collapse he died in November of 1855.

St. Kierkegaard’s big hang-up with the church, and with life, is the notion of how one could talk with such plain certainty about things that are so unexplainable. The inability or unwillingness of the church to faithfully wrestle with itself and its teachings, even core teachings of Divine existence and what constitutes morality in a world that seemed destined for rule by the privileged, troubled him. How does will, risk, and choice play into our life-trajectory? How can a theology that smacked of status quo even begin to mirror the sacrificial life of the Christ?

Kierkegaard always tried to point the church back to this “troubled truth”: you can’t be certain, so stop pretending you can be.

For Kierkegaard truth was experienced more than taught by scholars in a classroom, and in this way he embodied a very “ground-up” theological stance which, for obvious reasons, chaffed against the hierarchy of the Church.

I deeply resonate with St. Soren’s wrestling with faith and truth, and to say that his works Stages on Life’s Way and Fear and Trembling had an effect on me is to say too little. I continue to consider myself a follower of his particular vein of theological inquiry: questioning, uncertain, and yet always striving.

I also think he is an outstanding writer and that you should read him for that, if for nothing else.

St. Soren is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that the people in our pews can be trusted with a bit of ambiguity, can be invited to a deep (and necessary!) wrestling with the faith, and should not be served the vapid theology and trite moralisms and “pie in the sky” escapism.

Wrestle, by God. It’s uncomfortable, it can even be painful, but it is worth the effort to live an examined life.

-the life of Kierkegaard cobbled together from my own work and Pfatteicher’s New Book of Festivals & Commemorations.

-opinions my own

-do yourself a favor and read Fear and Trembling

-painting by Fabrizio Cassetta