Category Archives: saints

Take no offence

Today is the feast of St. Anthony of Thebes, often called San Antonio Abad here in Latin America to distinguish him from the Franciscan San Antonio de Padua.

This morning I came across this quote, found in Thomas Merton’s The Wisdom of the Desert:

ABBOT ANTHONY taught Abbot Ammonas, saying: You must advance yet further in the fear of God. And taking him out of the cell he showed him a stone, saying: Go and insult that stone, and beat it without ceasing. When this had been done, St. Anthony asked him if the stone had answered back. No, said Ammonas. Then Abbot Anthony said: You too must reach the point where you no longer take offence at anything.

It’s not that we should not speak up against injustice. What is important that we don’t take offense, don’t take things personally, don’t respond in kind.

I wonder if this might be extremely important advice, not just for me but for all who live in contentious situations. I’m thinking especially of post-election US.

A few days after the election I started to write a blog entry which I entitled “Frayed Nerves.” I never finished or published it. But I want to share some of my thoughts at that time in light of the wisdom of this desert father (who died in 356 at the age of 105).

So here are the notes for my “Frayed Nerves” post:

Before the election I avoided any direct commentary on candidates.

After the election, I have been surprised at the reactions I have received on Facebook to what I considered to be merely raising questions. I was surprised at the responses.

My motives were questioned in one response and I was told that a statement I had made was putting down the middle class that supported me. I didn’t know what statement was being referred to and so I wrote a response. The original comment was deleted by the sender.

In another I said that Obama had deported more than previous presidents. Someone questioned this and said “President Obama has deported no-one. The current laws of the U.S. passed by the Congress of the United States are responsible for any deportations from the U.S. Stop blaming a single man for things you don’t like in America. The President alone is not responsible. Why do people not understand this?”

I said Obama because he was president while this was being done, knowing that it is a question of more than one person. But I still believe that President Obama does have some responsibility.

I posted Archbishop Gomez’s statement at a service in which he said that children were going to bed scared. I got a response that said that this fear was learned or deliberately taught.

It appears that people’s nerves are frayed and people are often responding from their gut. I am saddened at this.

But there has been one person I’ve interacted with on Facebook who has been more thoughtful. He is, to put it mildly, much more conservative than I. He wrote one comment on a comment of a friend on something I posted that I found disrespectful. I gently responded and he deleted the comment.

He also responded in a way that I didn’t expect to a quote I posted from General Omar Bradley on war. In a later comment he responded to my concern about Trump with a comment that this is due to the media. I responded gently disagreeing. This was very refreshing.

But then I posted photos of caterpillars that were taking over the front of my house, asking if anyone knew what they were. I soon got people giving them names – male names at first. It was hilarious. I guess this was a needed outlet for frustration. Long live the caterpillars.

Frayed nerves may reveal that all too often we take offense – even when no offense was intended.

The question is whether we can be like the stone that Ammonas beat or whether we pick p the stone and throw it at another.

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The elusive patroness of philosophers

Today the church commemorates Saint Catherine of Alexandria, a patroness of philosophers.

As a philosopher, I rejoice that a woman is our patron. But there’s one problem: Saint Catherine might never have existed! Now that’s a philosopher’s dilemma.

According to the legend, Saint Catherine became a Christian after an intellectual search led her to Christ. The Emperor, fascinated by her beauty, had her brought before him. Stirred by his lechery he asked her to be his consort. (What a good virgin martyr’s story without a lecherous emperor.) When this didn’t work, he urged her to give up her faith. She was so convincing in her argument against this that the emperor brought in fifty philosophers who were so moved by her arguments that they became Christians and were martyred. Catherine was thrown into jail where she converted the emperor’s wife, her jailer, and two hundred soldiers. Frustrated by all this, he planned to kill her by a machine made of spoked wheels, but it flew apart and she was untouched. Then the emperor had her beheaded. And, not make things even more fascinating, angels took her body and buried it on Mount Sinai.

Saint Catherine was a very popular saint in the middle ages and into the modern era. But the Catholic Church first suppressed her feast but then restored it in 2002. Alas, such is the fate of women philosophers.

Robert Ellsberg, in All Saints, ends his short entry on St. Catherine, a saint who may never have existed, thus:

[Saint Catherine] may continue to represent the subversive power of women’s wisdom, a voice which many would like to silence lest it subvert the whole world with its irrefutable logic. So Catherine continues to inspire and illuminate us with her edifying story, like the light emanating from a distant star which no longer exists.

St. Catherine of Alexandria, pray for us.

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Mosaic of women saints in Ravenna

All the saints

As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the most powerful moments for me when I was ordained was lying prostrate during the litany of saints.

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As I lay there, I felt myself surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses – interceding for me and offering me examples of the love and mercy of God which I felt called to follow in a special way by being an ordained deacon – and not just an occasional servant. But this communion of saints includes not only those who are acknowledged by the church; nor does it only include those who has passed from this life; we are living in the midst of the saints, the “holy” people of God who struggle to live lives of mercy and faithfulness.

Today the Gospel is Matthew’s version of the Beatitudes and I’d like to recall some of the “saints” who have inspired me – some living, some gone to be among the saints in the heavenly presence of God.

Blessed are the poor in spirit

Two couples who are trying in the midst of jobs to live as families who are open to the poor and to the demands of justice.

Blessed are those who mourn

Two friends who recently lost premature twins and have shown such great faith and tranquility but still experience the loss.

Blessed are the meek

Gentle-spirited Juan Ángel Pérez, a thirty-one year old delegate of the Word in a poor community, who died a few weeks ago.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for justice

Blessed Monseñor Oscar Romero, the Salvadoran archbishop who found himself more and more taking up the cause of the poor and was martyred at the altar for his identification with the poor.

Blessed are the pure of heart

The Franciscan sisters I know and work with in Honduras who are examples of committed wisdom who “will one thing” – the presence of a loving God in the midst of the poor.

Blessed are the peacemakers

Servant of God Dorothy Day, co-founder of the Catholic Worker, who lived among the poor and sought peace and justice for the poor.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for the cause of justice

Blessed Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian peasant with a wife and family who refused to serve in Hitler’s army, and was imprisoned and beheaded for his faithfulness to a God of life.

The poor Christ of St. Teresa

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A critical moment in the life of Saint Teresa of Avila was her contemplation of Christ Crucified. She later wrote on this encounter with the suffering, poor Christ:

“When I fell to prayer again and looked at Christ hanging poor and naked upon the Cross, I felt I could not bear to be rich. So I besought him with tears to bring it to pass that I might be as poor as he.”

In her reform of the Carmelites, poverty and begging were important. They were called “Dsicalced” because they wore hemp sandals, not fancy shoes.

She wanted to be poor like the poor Christ.

But this was not only a message for her sisters – and for her fellow Carmelite reformer, St. John of the Cross. It was a message that she saw as important for all believers, for the whole Body of Christ. As she wrote in  Conceptions of the Love of God,

 “Some people have all they need and a good sum of money shut up in their safe as well. Because they avoid serious sins, they think they have done their duty, They enjoy their riches and give an occasional alms, yet never consider that their property is not their own, but that God has entrusted it to them to share with the poor. . . . We have no concern with this except to ask God to enlighten such people. . . and to thank him for making us poor, which we should hold as a special favor on his part.”

This is quite a challenge for most of us, but reminds me of the call of Pope Francis to be a poor church, a church for the poor – or, as Pope Saint John XXIII hoped, a church of the poor.

 

A Sudanese saint and human trafficking

I have always been distressed at the lot of those who are victims of various kinds of human trafficking. How I wish that all of us would hear God’s cry: “Where is your brother?” (Genesis 4:9). Where is your brother or sister who is enslaved? Where is the brother and sister whom you are killing each day in clandestine warehouses, in rings of prostitution, in children used for begging, in exploiting undocumented labor. Let us not look the other way. There is greater complicity than we think. The issue involves everyone! This infamous network of crime is now well established in our cities, and many people have blood on their hands as a result of their comfortable and silent complicity.
Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 211

Today the Church celebrates a Sudanese sister who had been for many years a slave, a victim of human trafficking. Saint Josephina Bakhita transformed her suffering into service of others as a Canossian sister in northern Italy.

Born in the Darfur region of Sudan, she was kidnapped into slavery when she was about seven years old. Sold several times – and seriously maltreated at least twice – she was eventually sold to an Italian consul who took her back with his family to Venice, Italy. There the consul gave Bakhita to a friend who entrusted her with care of their daughter.

To make a long story short, the daughter and Bakhita were sent to the Canossian sisters. There Bakhita learned about the Catholic faith. Her “owners” wanted to take her back to Sudan where they had a hotel but she refused. The owners insisted but the Canossian sisters and the Patriarch of Venice took the side of Bakhita who was baptized and given the name Josephine. To the owners’ surprise, Josephine was freed, since slavery was prohibited in Italy.

She joined the Canossian sisters and spent more than fifty years in simple tasks in several convents, supporting her sisters with her work and her prayers.

This morning as I prayed over the life of St. Josephine, I recalled several people from St. Thomas Aquinas Church in Ames, where I worked for many years.

I recall the families, especially Paula and Jim, who took in some of the Lost Boys of Sudan and made them a part of their lives.

I remember the large number of Sudanese Catholics who were a part of the St. Thomas parish.

I also remember a precocious high school student in religious ed, Luis, who has become a major advocate in the fight against human trafficking, even within the US State Department.

I remember the commitment of these people, as well as the suffering of the Sudanese people – even now – and the continuing scourge of human trafficking and poorly paid workers.

These people inspire me to continue the small ways I feel called to help people recall and recover their dignity, as children of God.

 

Encountering the lowly

Do not be haughty
but associate with the lowly.
Romans 12: 16

 Today’s lectionary reading from Saint Paul’s letter to the Romans (12: 5-16b) is full of extraordinary advice for us who seek to follow Christ. But it is the final verse that struck me, “associate with the lowly” partly because of my situation here and partly because that is what Pope Francis calls us to do.

Pope Francis has, from the start, called for a “culture of encounter” (The Joy of the Gospel [Evangelii Gaudium], ¶ 220).

Giving to the poor and even advocating for justice on their behalf are not enough. For, as Pope Francis also wrote in The Joy of the Gospel, ¶ 88:

…the Gospel tells us constantly to run the risk of a face to face encounter with others, with their physical presence which challenges us, with their pain and their pleas, with their joy which infects us in our close and continuous interaction. True faith in the incarnate Son of God is inseparable from self-giving, from membership in the community, from service, from reconciliation with others. The Son of God, by becoming flesh, summoned us to the revolution of tenderness.

We are called to encounter the lowly, to associate with them, because that is what Jesus has done. He became flesh to associate with the poor and the lowly, those at the margins.

Jesus normally does not heal from a distance but touches the sick, speaks with them, and calls them to new life.

This is not easy but it is possible when we open ourselves, as Pope Francis has noted, to encounter Jesus.

But it has to be personal.

In Bolivia Pope Francis spoke to the World Meeting of Popular Movements and noted the importance of this face-to-face solidarity:

As members of popular movements, you carry out your work inspired by fraternal love, which you show in opposing social injustice. When we look into the eyes of the suffering, when we see the faces of the endangered campesino, the poor laborer, the downtrodden native, the homeless family, the persecuted migrant, the unemployed young person, the exploited child, the mother who lost her child in a shootout because the barrio was occupied by drug-dealers, the father who lost his daughter to enslavement…. when we think of all those names and faces, our hearts break because of so much sorrow and pain. And we are deeply moved…. We are moved because “we have seen and heard” not a cold statistic but the pain of a suffering humanity, our own pain, our own flesh. This is something quite different than abstract theorizing or eloquent indignation. It moves us; it makes us attentive to others in an effort to move forward together. That emotion which turns into community action is not something which can be understood by reason alone: it has a surplus of meaning which only peoples understand, and it gives a special feel to genuine popular movements.

We can follow the example of these secular movements and join with them in real solidarity with the poor and humble, following in the footsteps of a God who became poor.

Today, fittingly, is also the feast of Saint Martin de Porres, the mixed-race Dominican lay brother who served the poor in Lima, Perú, and was known as “the father of the poor.” He is also the patron of social justice – a quite fitting reminder of the admonition of St. Paul to “associate with the lowly.”

Saints who touched me – Benedict the Moor

November 1 is the feast of all saints. I’d like to share a few of the saints who have touched my life.

I grew up in the midst of the piety of the 1950s where we said the Rosary in the family during October, where we learned about the saints in Catholic school, and where there was a large statue of Saint Therese of Lisieux in our parish church.

I had an attraction to the Franciscans at this time, which continues to this day. I even got to the first Mass of Father Cyprian Harkin, ofm, the nephew of a woman who worked with my Dad.

Somehow I learned of the Franciscan Saint Benedict of Sicily or, as he was known then, Saint Benedict the Moor – now called Saint Benedict the Black, who lived in Sicily from 1526 to 1589.

Born in Sicily of parents who had been freed from slavery, he joined a group of hermits living under St. Francis’ Rule for hermits. Shortly after, the pope disbanded all small groups of hermits, and Benedict joined the Franciscans.

Benedict, though illiterate and a lay brother, was chosen novice master and later guardian of the friary. But he finally asked to return to the kitchen to do what he loved – cook.

Father Cyprian found a statue for me which I had stored with friends when I left for Honduras in 2007. On my recent trip to Ames, I found the statue and it is now in my prayer room – next to a Guatemalan statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe and a Bolivian angel.

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Why did St. Benedict mean so much to me in the late fifties?

This was the time of the civil rights movement and Benedict was obviously an example of holiness that is not limited to whites.His holiness also reinforced my concern for civil rights and racial equality.

Looking back, there are several other aspects of his life that touch me even now.

He was illiterate but that did not stop him from being holy or from being an example and guide for others. God does not need education to work wonders of holiness – though education helps.

In addition, he found holiness amid the pots and pans, preparing food for his brothers. He was a real servant.

I am so happy to have his statue here – as I try to be of service to the poor and to the faith community here.

I ask God for the grace to be loving and humble as Benedict was and be open to the poor.