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

Sage of the Ages

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

The Spiritual Gift of Missing the Mark

“This is terrible” my eldest said has he looked at his report card.

After a pandemic year of virtual learning, we’re all getting used to the rhythm of being back at school, and only time will tell what scars (holy and traumatic) this whole experience will leave on this generation of Covid-kids. My heart is full of pushes and pulls on this topic.

We must lead with grace, Beloved. With ourselves, one another; with teachers, school boards, and administrators.

Too many are not leading with grace.

He was so upset. It ruined his night.

The reality, though, was that he only had lower than average scores in three areas, and we had been told by his teacher that all parents should prepare for lower than average scores in some areas because, well, they’re still working on skills.

Learning takes time, Beloved.

And the thing is: it was a good report card. The elementary school equivalent to A’s and B’s, and he even had an A++ in there, a superior score!

But all he could see were those things that missed the mark.

After some tears and temper tantrums, we talked it out. Missing the mark means he’s still learning. Missing the mark doesn’t mean he’s a bad person, or that he’s less-than, or that he’s a screw-up, or that he’s not smart.

It means he’s in process.

And, in our most honest moments, we’re all in process, Beloved.

There is a spiritual gift in missing the mark. It’s a reminder that perfection is not only not attainable, it’s not ultimately beneficial. Perfect people don’t have anywhere to go or anything to do.

No one’s report card is perfect. The more we embrace this, the better we’ll all become. Because a less than perfect report card leaves room for grace, for growth, for give-and-take. It is a spiritual gift to know you have a less than perfect report card. And I don’t mean that you take that with any shame, or any false humility.

It’s just damn true.

My life is a less than perfect report card, every quarter. As a spouse. As a parent. As an employee. As a child.

As a human who strives to be as good as possible.

The more I embrace that, the wiser I become.

At least, that’s what I’m banking on.

Time is of the Essence

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

Powerful Questions Over Trite Answers

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.

His funeral at the largest church in town was attended by three people: his brother, the priest, and himself.

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

When Catechesis Changed Lives

Today the church honors the start of an ancient feast, Martinmas, named in honor of St. Martin of Tours, Bishop, Conscientious Objector, and Gentle Bishop.

St. Martin was born in the early 4th Century in modern day Hungary. His family was not Christian, and his father was a distinguished Roman legionnaire.

In his childhood he came under Christian influence, and at the age of ten he took it upon himself to sign up for Catechism classes (imagine that happening today!).

As a young teen, though, his catechumenal exploration was put on pause as he was drafted into the Roman army, a common practice for children of Roman soldiers. He was a good soldier. Very good, in fact, and well-liked by his comrades.

This is a nice tie-in to Veterans Day, no?

But, as the legend goes, one winter night he was stationed in Amiens, and on night watch he saw a poor old beggar at the city gates shivering in the cold. St. Martin had nothing to give him, so he cut his cavalryman’s cloak, and gave the old man half to wrap himself in. That night St. Martin dreamt that he saw Christ wrapped in his cloak, saying, “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with his cloak.”

Well, this sent St. Martin into an existential crisis. Over a period of time he became convinced he could no longer be a soldier because he could no longer justify killing.
He decided to be baptized and asked to leave the army. He was twenty years old.

St. Martin went off to seek Bishop Hilary of Poitiers (see Jan 13th for his feast day) to learn from him. He met with him and decided he wanted to join him in his work in Poitiers, but first wanted to say goodbye (and convert) his family back in Hungary. While St. Martin was journeying back to Hilary after hanging with his family, he learned that Bishop Hilary had been exiled. St. Martin decided then that he, too, would seek a solitary life for a while, and lived a hermits life in a hut outside Poitiers.

The thing is, St. Martin was becoming famous for not wanting to be famous. And so his little hut grew into two, three, thirty…a thriving humble monastery had formed that was providing charitable work all over the French countryside. In 371 the Bishopric of Tours became vacant. St. Martin’s followers tricked him into entering the city, and then would not let him leave until he agreed to be their Bishop.

“Fine,” he said. “But I’m going to do it my way…” (cue Frank Sinatra).

St. Martin, now Bishop, set up his home in a cave on the cliffs of Marmoutier, two miles from Tours. The office for his Bishopric was a hut just outside the cave. And though he had an unusual lifestyle, and an unusual approach, he was unusually effective in reaching the poor countryside people of France with charitable love, good works, and the Gospel message.
He fought for the rights of peasants in front of Emperors, not afraid to advocate on behalf of the poor. He established centers of charity and teaching in places no one else cared about. And when the Church first used capital punishment as the sentence of heresy, as they did in 386, St. Martin strongly opposed the sentence and began to ask tough questions about mixing the church and state.

He thought government and the church should not hold hands too tightly.
St. Martin died in 397. Interestingly enough, his work set much of the foundational work for the Celtic Christian Church, as missionaries trained in his little outposts traveled to the British Isles.

Martinmas, much like Michaelmas, became a festival time in much of Christendom, perhaps even spanning ten days originally. After the Reformation, many Lutherans continued to celebrate Martinmas, but did so to honor both St. Martin of Tours and Blessed Martin Luther (whose birthday is November 10th).

St. Martin’s motto, “Non recus laborem” or “I do not turn back from work” has been the motto of many of the faithful throughout the centuries.

St. Martin is a reminder for me, and should be for the whole church, that catechetical study has been known to significantly alter how people live and work. It has been formative…and could still be.

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

-icon written by Aiden Hart depicting St. Martin’s formative experience

We Can’t Just Do What We Want…

Today the church honors an important leader in the church that most church-goers have never even heard of, St. Leo the Great, Bishop of Rome and Mediator of the Church.

Long before the church was arguing about the nature of humans and their race and sexuality, the church set about arguing about the nature of Jesus. In the 5th Century, when Pope Leo was consecrated as the Bishop of Rome, the Catholic faith was being torn asunder by schisms over who Jesus was and how Jesus was.

Yes, you read that correctly: how Jesus was.

How was Jesus both Divine and human?

Pope Leo refocused the question on faith rather than nitty-gritty explanation. He affirmed the idea that Christ had two natures and, as he was enlarging the influence of the Papacy around the known world, issued his famous (at least to churchy-people) Tome to Flavian, the Patriarch of Constantinople that had the clearest articulation of Christ as human and yet Divine.

You still talk about this idea, by the way, every time you say the Nicene Creed.

At the time all sorts of schisms were going on inside the church, there were tons of wars being fought in real-time, too. St. Leo kept Rome safe from Attila the Hun in 452, and a legion of Vandals, whom he persuaded not to destroy Rome, in 455. He put restrictions on who (under what training) could enter the priesthood, and affirmed the goodness of “all matter,” rejecting the idea that the created world is evil and we need only wait for some heaven, lightyears away.

He was a devoted liturgist, and further developed the words of the Mass, shaping the words we say yet today.

St. Leo was wise, if not particularly brilliant. He understood how to use power effectively and for twenty-two years led with theological ability and personal resolve.

St. Leo is a reminder for me that wisdom and brilliance don’t always hold hands, and you can certainly be one without the other.

But of all the things that Pope Leo the Great is remembered for, the thing that struck me is how he looked at creation and without hesitation affirmed what Genesis had already said: “this is good.”

Why does it matter?

Because, Beloved, it articulates clearly that everything that is created, matters, and therefore we can’t just do what we want with it…

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

-editorials by me