Category Archives: Europe

The paradoxes of Saint Bridget

Mother of eight children (including St. Catherine of Sweden), widow, nun, founder of a religious order, noblewoman, giver of alms, critic of kings and popes, pilgrim, mystic, patroness of Europe, and much more – such was saint Bridget of Sweden who died on July 23, 1373. She is an example of a woman saint, like her contemporary St. Catherine of Siena, who does not fit into an image of pious submissive women.

A mystic, she was outspoken against the evils she saw around her – including injustice, wars, and immorality.

A devout founder of the Brigittines, the Order of the Most Holy Savior, she had no qualms in criticizing the popes for abandoning Rome for Avignon. She called Pope Clement VI “a destroyer of souls, worse than Lucifer, more unjust than Pilate, and more merciless than Judas.” Though he didn’t returned to Rome, her order was approved.

A critic of political leaders intent on war and land grabs, she was also, as Margery Kempe said of her, “kind and meek to every creature” who had “a laughing face.”

She received intense revelations of the sufferings of Christ and she suffered in Rome impoverished by her sharing with the poor.

Her life seems full of contradictions or paradoxes.

How could she ever have done all this?

I think the answer lies in this statement of hers:

The poor of the earth have need of a triple mercy: sorrow for their sins, penance to atone them, and strength to do good.

Her love of the God of mercy moved her to respond as she heard God’s call, even though it caused her great suffering. Identifying with the suffering Christ, she could live freely, responding to God’s call in many different ways.

May God grant me that freedom.

The poor and peace

El Greco's St. Martin

El Greco’s St. Martin

St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is celebrated today, is well known for a simple act of charity.

He had been forced to join the military, probably in part due to his father being a member of the military. One day, in Amiens, in the cold of winter, he encountered a beggar. Having nothing more than his cloak, he cut it in half and gave one half to the poor man. That night in a dream he saw Christ clothed in the cloak; Christ affirmed the charity of this simple act: “Martin, still a catechumen, has covered me with this cloak.”

Martin then proceeded to be baptized.

But baptism brought another challenge.

Martin refused to go into battle. “I am a soldier of Christ. It is not lawful for me to fight.”

He was accused of cowardice and imprisoned, though he was subsequently released from military service.

Martin shows us that the way of Christ is care for the poor, sharing what we have, and refusing to kill, even our enemies.

Neither of these acts is easy, but love of the poor and the love of the enemy should be the marks of a follower of the poor man of Nazareth who died on a cross, forgiving his enemies.

They are also what we need today.

Today is also Armistice Day, the anniversary of the end of World War I, the war to end all wars.

Recalling this, I want to share the words of General Omar Bradley, which compliment the example of St. Martin:

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. Mankind is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Would that we learn how to live and love as Martin showed us, following in the steps of Jesus.

For love of the world

All too often I hear people making a sharp distinction between the spiritual and the worldly.

Fifty years ago today, on October 13, 1964, Madeleine Delbrêl died in France. For many years she and groups of women lived and worked in Ivry, a working-class city near Paris. These communities of contemplatives living in the world were, as she called them, “missionaries without a boat,” immersed in the lives of their neighbors, many of whom were Communists.

She felt a call to live in the world. As she wrote in We, the Ordinary People of the Street,

Christ does not provide his followers with a set of wings to flee into heaven, but with a weight to drag them into the deepest corners of the earth. What may seem to be the specifically missionary vocation is in fact simply what it means to be embraced by Christ.

Despite any apparent contradiction, we diminish and falsify our love for Christ and the Church wherever we diminish that which draws us to the world and enables us to plunge ourselves into it. This is what the love of the world means, a love that is not an identification with the world, but a gift to it.

That love let her see the grace that comes in responding to the ordinary in daily life, in recognizing God coming to us in every moment:

Each tiny act is an extraordinary event, in which heaven is given to us, in which we are able to give heaven to others. It makes no difference what we do, whether we take in hand a broom or a pen… Whether we are sewing or holding a meeting, caring for a sick person or tapping away at the typewriter…. Is the doorbell ringing? Quick, open the door! It’s God coming to love us. Is someone asking is to do something? Here you are! It’s God coming to love us. Is it time to sit down for lunch? Let’s go — it’s God coming to live us. Let’s let him.

This awareness of God in the ordinary let Madeleine open herself to her neighbors and show them God’s love.

Though I find ways to do this now, living in town and going out to the countryside, I am looking forward to moving out to a rural village where, I pray, I can be present to the people, recognizing God’s presence there and responding in love.

Which side are you on?

Simone Weil was an enigmatic woman. She felt called to be a Christian but never entered the Catholic Church. She loved Greek philosophy but found ancient Roman society repulsive. She was very critical of Judaism, even though she was born of non-practicing Jewish parents. She died in England, though she longed to be parachuted into France to help. She died probably because she refused to eat more than the rations that the French were living on under Nazi occupation.

But I still find her appealing. I first read The Need for Roots in the early 1970s and should read it again to see if it still speaks to me. Her notion of prayer as “attention” is very appealing.

But she was also a woman who sought to be on the side of the marginalized. As she wrote:

“Human beings are so made that the ones who do the crushing feel nothing; it is the person crushed who feels what is happening. Unless one has placed oneself on the side of the oppressed, to feel with them, one cannot understand.”

Which side am I on?

At the foot of the Cross

Shall he, then, keep on brandishing his sword
to slay peoples without mercy?
Habakkuk 1, 17

 Habakkuk is complaining about human beings whom God has made, who make gods for themselves out of the works of their hands, even out of the fishermen’s net. Worse, they “slay peoples without mercy.”

Today that complaint seems to ring true.

On August 9, 1945, the US dropped an atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Nagasaki. Nagasaki was a center of Catholicism in Japan, with its shrine of the Japanese martyrs. The bomb killed tens of thousands of innocent people, including those who had gathered in the Nagasaki cathedral to pray.

Two years before, on August 9, 1943, Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant was beheaded for refusing to serve in the Nazi army. He was one of only a few Catholics who saw the reality of Hitler and decided that he could have no part of it.

In one of his letters to his wife from prison he recalled a dream he had in 1938 of a training speeding down a hill, with people running to get on board. He identified the train as Nazism and saw it as a train going to hell.

A year before Franz’s martyrdom, Sister Teresa Benedicta a Cruce, born Edith Stein, died in a gas chamber in Auschwitz onAugust 9, 1942. A philosopher, a convert from Judaism, a Carmelite nun, she did not see herself as separated from the pain of her day, especially the suffering of the Jewish people. In fact, she has written to Pope Pius XI seeking an audience to talk with him about the persecution of Jews. Her letter was unanswered.

But St. Teresa Benedicta saw her role as being with Christ crucified.

Do you want to be totally united to the Crucified? If you are serious about this, you will be present, by the power of His Cross, at every front, at every place of sorrow, bringing to those who suffer healing and salvation.

On August 9, 1991, two Conventual Franciscan priests, Miguel Tomaszek and Zbigniew Strzalkowski, missionaries in Perú, were killed by the Sendero Luminoso. They had stood with the poor.

How can I be present at the Cross, at the suffering of peoples? If I truly want to follow the Crucified God, how can I be silent in the face of suffering, death, bombing, persecution?

A fourth of July meditation

Hear this, you who trample on the needy,
to do away with the weak of the land…
I will turn your festivals into mourning,
and all your singing into wailing.
Amos 8: 4, 10

 While the US celebrates Independence Day with its proper lectionary readings, the universal church continues reading the prophet Amos, with his warnings against oppressing the poor.

Today the universal church also celebrates the feast of Saint Elizabeth of Portugal, a queen who was a peacemaker and a lover of the poor.

St. Elizabeth, the daughter of the king of Aragon was given in marriage to the king of Portugal. As a queen she cared for the poor and needy, founding hospitals, orphanages, and homes for homes for “fallen women,” She cared for her children as well as the children of her husband’s affairs.

But she is known as the patroness of peace for her efforts to reconcile warring parties, many of whom were her relatives.

After her husband’s death, she lived as a poor Franciscan tertiary near a convent of the Poor Clares, but continued her work of reconciling enemies and preventing wars.

As noted in Robert Ellsberg’s Blessed Among All Women, she once said:

 Do not forget that when sovereigns are at war they can no longer busy themselves with their administration: justice is not distributed; no care is taken of the people; and this alone is your sovereign charge: this is the main point of your duty as kings.

All nations, especially the US, should take her words into account as well as the warning of the prophet Amos.

I dare say that Thomas Merton had it right when he wrote more than forty years ago:

It seems to me that there are very dangerous ambiguities about our democracy in its actual present condition. I wonder to what extent our ideals are now a front for organized selfishness and systematic irresponsibility. If our affluent society ever breaks down and the facade is taken away, what are we going to have left?


Fidelity to conscience

Today is the feast of Saint Joan of Arc, the French peasant girl who led the troops of France against the English. She was captured, tried for heresy, and burned at the stake – at the age of nineteen.

There is much about Jean D’Arc, the Maid of Orleans, that is troubling. The saints whose voices urged her on – Saint Catherine and Saint Margaret – may never have existed. She also led troops in battle.

But, surprisingly, she was one of Dorothy Day’s favorite saints – and Dorothy Day was a firm opponent of war.

As Jim Forest notes in All Is Grace, in response to his query about her devotion to this “military” saint, Dorothy Day told him that “Joan of Arc is a saint to the fidelity to conscience.”

Yet, there is another aspect of Saint Joan. In All Saints, Robert Ellsberg, who worked with Dorothy Day at the Catholic Worker, writes (page 238):

An illiterate peasant girl, a shepherd, a “nobody.” she heeded a religious call to save her country when all the ”somebodies” of her time proved unable or unwilling to meet the challenge. She stood up before princes of the church and state and the most learned authorities of her world and refused to compromise her conscience or deny her special vocation. She paid the ultimate price for her stand. And in doing so she won a prize far more valuable than the gratitude of the Dauphin or the keys of Orleans.

Again, God chooses the poor of this world to confound the rich and powerful

Canterbury tale: murder in the cathedral

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

Thomas Becket: Canterbury Cathedral window

On December 29, 1170, four of King Henry II’s knights entered Canterbury Cathedral and killed the archbishop, Thomas Becket.

Thomas had been a good friend of the king who had Thomas, his chancellor, appointed archbishop. He probably hoped to thus consolidate his power.

But Thomas took his role seriously. Upon being ordained priest and then bishop, he donned clerical dress and began to pray and study – and distribute alms – like a real priest.

But it was Thomas’ defense of the rights of the church that put him at odds with his former friend. The last straw was when he excommunicated the bishops who had participated in the coronation of Henry’s son.  When informed of this in Normandy, King Henry is alleged to have said, “Who will rid me of this troublesome priest?” Four knights took on that task.

Whether he was a martyr for the faith or a martyr for the rights of the church can be debated. But he was a person not afraid to stand up to one who sought absolute power.

All too often we are intimidated into silence by those in power. Today in places like Honduras, the power of politicians and the rich, backed up by soldiers and police, can intimidate some. In places like the US, the intimidation is more likely to come from peers whom we don’t want to alienate. The result is the same.

But people like Thomas Becket and other bishop martyrs (St. Stanislaus and Archbishop Oscar Romero – also killed in churches) ought to inspire us to ask for the courage to “speak truth to power,” as the Quakers say.

Justice and peace shall kiss

El Greco's St. Martin

El Greco’s St. Martin

St. Martin of Tours, whose feast is celebrated today, brings together two aspects of early Christianity that we would sometimes like to forget.

St. Martin is most known for cutting his cloak in half to give to a beggar in the cold of winter. That night he had a dream of Christ, clothed in the cloak. His concern for the poor continued throughout his life.

But St. Martin also demonstrates the early church’s opposition to war. Martin had been forced to become a soldier, probably because his father was a military tribune. But, faced with the prospect of killing others in battle, he told his commander, “I am a soldier of Christ and it is not lawful for me to fight.”

He offered to go into battle the next day unarmed. Instead he was jailed. He was subsequently released and became a monk and then the bishop of Tours.

His love for peace and nonviolence led him to go on a peacemaking visit to Candes, even though he knew he was dying.

Martin shows us that we are called to love and care for all – to care for the poor and to love even our enemies, not kill them.

Today is Armistice Day, a day originally established to remember the end of what later became know as the First World War. In the US it is Veterans Day.

But Saint Martin of Tours is a challenge to war and injustice. He calls us to imitate the poor and nonviolent Jesus, his Master and ours.

But St. Martin was not the only former soldier to warn about war. General Omar Bradley once said:

“With the monstrous weapons man already has, humanity is in danger of being trapped in this world with its moral adolescence. Our knowledge of science has clearly outstripped our capacity to control it. We have too many men of science, too few men of God. We have grasped the mystery of the atom and rejected the Sermon on the Mount. [Humanity] is stumbling blindly through spiritual darkness while toying with the precarious secrets of life and death….

“…the world has achieved brilliance without wisdom, power without conscience, Ours is a world of nuclear giants and ethical infants. We know more about war than we know about peace; more about killing, than we know about living.”

Would that we knew the ways of peace. (Luke 19: 42)

“Without event”

They also serve
who only stand and wait.
John Milton 

 For more than forty years, Brother Alfonso Rodríguez answered the door at the Jesuit college in Majorca.

But his simple faith, nourished by prayer and service to all who entered the door, brought the love of God to many. This man who had been refused entry to the Jesuits in his late thirties became a spiritual adviser to many – and inspired St. Peter Claver to go to the Americas.

The Jesuit poet Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote a beautiful sonnet In Honor of St. Alphonsus Rodriguez. In the last stanza he wrote:

 …while there went
Those years and years by of the world without event
That in Majorca Alfonso watched the door.

This morning the words “without event” struck me. Hermano Alfonso did no major deed that the annals of history might recount, but his simple service changed the lives of many.

In today’s first reading. St. Paul tells the Romans (8:39) that nothing “can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Paul, of course, lists death, the powers, and more as possible threats to that love.

But might the ordinariness of life also separate us from God’s love.

When we, unlike Alfonso, do not see and show the love of God in the ordinary people we meet, in the daily tasks of opening doors and treating people with welcoming kindness, are we letting ourselves be separated from the love of Christ?

But what kept Alfonso going?

Perhaps these words of his can give us a hint:

 This is my happiness, this my pleasure:
to live with Jesus, to walk with Jesus,
to converse with Jesus,
to suffer with and for him,
this is my treasure.