Posted in musings

the unknown saints

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about the different saints of the church – how each of them lived in radically different times and places, struggled with different vices and temptations, encountered different obstacles and endured different hardships, and generally painted an incredibly unique picture of beauty and holiness. Each one is an inspiration, and each one points even more surely to God than to themselves (since humility is, after all, a characteristic of righteousness).

And then I started thinking about all the “normal” people, living ordinary lives, seeking to serve God in whatever obscurity they were born into – people whose names the church doesn’t know, who never sought the acclaim or praise of men, but lived simply for God. I’d imagine there are a lot of these men and women, whose lives were never marked by anything spectacular, but who, day in and day out, with quiet perseverance, strove to follow God and live by faith, pouring His grace into their families and communities through their words and deeds.

Right now, the humility of these unknown saints is a powerful example to me. I’m living a fairly mundane and obscure life right now: no one knows me at church the way I used to be known in the small church I grew up in, or seeks me out to talk about ideas and theology; at work, I’m an important part of the team but not an irreplaceable one, and my inabilities and weaknesses are constantly being pressed; in my family, life operates on a pretty steady turntable of playing with the toddlers, helping them sleep, changing their clothes/diapers, and making sure they’re fed. There is fodder for profound thought, but little time or energy to put into it; there are needs in the community around me, but the needs of my own little family often take all that I have to give. I’m not involved in any great cause or movement that is trying to change the world, tackle injustice, or combat oppression.

But in every moment of every day I have just as much opportunity – and just as much responsibility – to live faithfully for Christ as the people who are doing those great and visible labors for the kingdom. If I live for Him, if I lay my life down sacrificially in the little chances that arise everyday as a mother and an employee, it doesn’t matter if anyone else notices. The righteousness wouldn’t even be mine anyway, since it comes through the grace of God: why should I seek praise for it? And who am I to deserve or thirst for the acclaim of men, when I can see all too clearly the places in my soul that are far from being conformed to the image of Christ: the judgment, the resentment, the preoccupation with myself, the apathy toward spiritual things?

Oh unknown saints of the church, who lived and toiled out of the sight of those who might have remembered your names through the generations, but who lived faithfully for God regardless of the earthly fame it brought you, please pray for me, that I too might live faithfully, might care so much about pleasing God that the praise of men no longer seems a jewel worth striving for as long as He is honored. Please pray that I might follow Him unfailingly, through tiredness and trivialities, through the everyday challenges that give me the chance to love and sacrifice or choose my own comfort again.

Posted in quotes

let my love for you grow deeper

This is how to reach for perfection: not by our own strength or goodness, but by the grace and love of Christ. This is the perfection to reach for: not our own success or fame, but the fullness of knowing and loving God.

O God, let me know you and love you so that I may find my joy in you; and if I cannot do so fully in this life, let me at least make some progress every day, until at last that knowledge, love and joy come to me in all their plenitude. While I am here on earth let me learn to know you better, so that in heaven I may know you fully; let my love for you grow deeper here, so that there I may love you fully. On earth then I shall have great joy in hope, and in heaven complete joy in the fulfillment of my hope.

St Anselm, from the Proslogion

May my life be pointed to heaven, and thus to Christ, for the wonder of heaven is the fullness of our relationship with Christ and our closeness to Him; may I not think of heaven as just a happy place to do my own thing for eternity, but as the fierce joy and fulfillment of wild hope that it is, where there is finally no sin pulling me away from the God I love; and may my focus on heaven lead me each day to know and love God more deeply here on earth.

Posted in musings, quotes

in memory of martin luther king jr

Today we remember the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr.

In the early church, people memorialized the martyrs by celebrating the day on which they died, because it was on that day that they were born into the fullness of new life in Christ and freed from the sinful tendencies of the flesh. In that spirit, then, today would be the appropriate feast day and memorial for Martin Luther King Jr., commemorating the death he died fighting for the freedom of his people, a fight that was both informed and characterized by his faith.

Of all the things that impress me about MLK, the ones that I think amazes me most are the tenacity with which he held to his faith in the face of the fear, antagonism, oppression, injustice, violence and hatred aimed at him by people who claimed to share that same faith, and his insistence at operating peacefully and striving for love when he was receiving all of that in return. How close he must have been to Christ, to keep living for Him in the midst of that storm of darkness! How strong his character must have been, forged in trials and infused by the Spirit Himself, to not waver on his principles or beliefs through all of his years in the civil rights movement!

I can tell you honestly that I don’t think my faith and character would hold up to the trials he faced. I can guarantee that I wouldn’t have faced those situations and people with the same combination of boldness and grace – I would have been running and hiding and hoping no one noticed me.

But his faith sustained him, his love directed him, and his courage kept his feet on the hard and beautiful path he had set out on. May we follow his example, and never by our silence, fear, or ignorance be complicit in the injustices he battled against.

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Posted in musings, quotes

the prayer of daniel

Daniel was one of the righteous men of his generation, the young exiles to Babylon. He kept the law of God, in spirit and in letter, despite the extraordinarily serious threats made upon him because of it. And yet, when he prays for his people, his nation, he makes no distinction between himself and them. He confesses for them, including himself in their number; he begs for God’s mercy, making no mention of his own righteousness or years of faithfulness.

Do we do this when we pray for our country, our churches, our communities? Or do we, in our prayers, distance ourselves from the ones we’re praying for? Do we see ourselves a step above them, separate from their problems and sins? Daniel could easily have done so, and yet he did not. Foreshadowing the intercessory mediation of Christ, he metaphorically took the sins of his nation upon himself and sought mercy at the throne of grace. As members of Christ’s earthly body, faced with the brokenness and sin of our nation, surely we can do no less, in our prayers and in our lives.


 

“O Lord, great and awesome God, who keeps His covenant and mercy with those who love Him, and with those who keep His commandments, we have sinned and committed iniquity, we have done wickedly and rebelled, even by departing from Your precepts and Your judgments. Neither have we heeded Your servants the prophets, who spoke in Your name to our kings and our princes, to our fathers and all the people of the land.

O Lord, righteousness belongs to You, but to us shame of face, […] because we have sinned against You. To the Lord our God belong mercy and forgiveness, though we have rebelled against Him. […]

O Lord, according to all Your righteousness, I pray, let Your anger and Your fury be turned away from [us]. Hear the prayer of Your servant, and his supplications, and for the Lord’s sake cause Your face to shine on Your sanctuary, which is desolate.

O my God, incline Your ear and hear; open Your eyes and see our desolations […]; for we do not present our supplications before You because of our righteous deeds, but because of Your great mercies.

O Lord, hear!

O Lord, forgive!

O Lord, listen and act!” (from Daniel 9:4-19)

 

Posted in musings, quotes

the courtesy of St. Francis

“I have said that St. Francis deliberately did not see the wood for the trees. It is even more true that he deliberately did not see the mob for the men. […] He only saw the image of God multiplied but never monotonous. To him a man was always a man and did not disappear in a dense crowd any more than in a desert. He honoured all men; that is, he not only loved but respected them all. What gave him his extraordinary personal power was this; that from the Pope to the beggar, from the sultan of Syria in his pavilion to the ragged robbers crawling out of the wood, there was never a man who looked into those brown burning eyes without being certain that Francis Bernadine was really interested in him; in his own inner individual life from the cradle to the grave; that he himself was being valued and taken seriously, and not merely added to the spoils of some social policy or the names in some clerical document.” – G. K. Chesterton, St. Francis of Assisi

Can you imagine treating everyone you encountered in this way? Giving them the courtesy and honor of seeing them as an individual and caring about their story for their own sake? It is so hard sometimes, weighed down as I am by my own problems and my own daily busyness, to genuinely look outside of myself into the heart of another person. But love consists in that type of respect, not simply in meeting another person’s physical needs, because service and charity can be given in an impersonal, agenda-driven manner, but taking another person seriously, valuing them and their past and their future, their history and the dreams, is worth far more.

Posted in links, musings

junipero serra

Today Pope Francis will canonize Junipero Serra – the first saint ever to be canonized on American soil, and one of only a relatively few American saints. I’ll be honest that I hadn’t heard of Serra before this year, and that I don’t know much about him yet. I’ve begun reading about him, though, and I’m impressed that this is the kind of man the Catholic Church would declare to be a saint. I’d always thought that the saints were essentially perfect people: maybe they had a rough beginning, like the Apostle Paul or Saint Augustine, but then following their conversion lived out their faith without fault and without controversy. Looking at Serra’s life, though, that seems to be a simplistic and naive idea, because his story is nothing if not complex.

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Serra came to the Americas on the tide of Spanish imperialism – a brutal, unjust, and oppressive moment of history. Many (probably most) of the Spanish soldiers and colonizers considered the native peoples to be savages, less than fully human, and ripe for exploitation, similar to how other European colonizers viewed the African people. And Serra came here with those soldiers, on the wings of colonial power, and worked with them, and labored under their protection. Was he not in some way complicit in their crimes? Was his desire to bring his faith to the native people just a subtler form of imperialism, a way to dominate them more completely by erasing their traditional beliefs and culture?

To a post-modern observer, it can easily look that way. If all cultures and beliefs are equally valid, then Serra certainly had no right to try to push his religion on the native people at the expense of their own traditions, especially since his presence and faith were backed by the ominous and fearful shadow of a conquering army.

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From Serra’s perspective, though (and from the perspective of the Church today, I think), it looked somewhat different, simply because he believed his religion to be the fullness of the truth – the source of meaning, fulfillment, and joy in this life and for all eternity, and the only way for humanity to draw near to God. Deeply in love with God and with the Church, the desire of his heart was to share the message of that God and that Church with these people who had never had the chance to hear, who had never been able to receive the grace of the Sacraments or hear the clear truth of God’s Word. The imperial conquest of the Spanish wasn’t something he evaluated from a 21st-century perspective on the clash of cultures, but something he saw as a historically unparalleled opportunity for the proclamation of truth and grace.

(Incidentally, he was prepared to sacrifice quite a lot for the sake of this proclamation, and over the course of his life he did indeed do so – family, career, home, comfort, and health. He was willing to suffer greatly if through his sufferings more souls might come to know God.)

While he took advantage of the opportunity presented by the Spanish colonization, then, he didn’t come here with the same motivations or attitudes. He wasn’t looking for riches and power, but for a chance to serve and bring life. We might still not approve of everything he did, looking back over the centuries at his life from a modern perspective, but knowing his intentions adds a layer of complexity to the black-and-white picture of imperial injustice sometimes presented as the whole story.

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Looking at the details of Serra’s interactions with the native people of Mexico and California adds still more layers to the story. There are the troubling accounts of flogging and other corporal punishment used on the converted natives, and the fact that the mission compounds kept the converted people in a sort of indentured servitude. But there is also the consideration that the missions offered protection from the brutality of the Spanish soldiers, preventing the rapes and killings that would otherwise have been perpetrated. There is the enormous effort Serra undertook to remove a particular commander from his position following his rape of a native woman, and his ability to see the beauty in their culture at a time when most Europeans saw differences to be instances of sin.

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By canonizing Junipero Serra, the Church does not claim that every choice he made was the right one (how could any person or institution make that kind of claim anyhow?), nor does it place a seal of approval on the culture he came from and lived in. Rather, it acknowledges that in an incredibly complex time and place, fraught with new and confusing situations and ethical considerations, Serra consistently sought to live his life for the glory of God to the temporal and eternal benefit of the native people he encountered. Though a man of his own times in many ways, he rose above most of the societal and systemic sins of his own time and culture by striving to live for and in emulation of Christ.

In our own complex historical era, maybe we can learn from Junipero Serra. Maybe, like him, we ought to labor practically for the good of our neighbors at home and to the ends of the earth, to the best of our ability, out of love for God, in union with the Church and the saints that have gone before us, without worrying what accolades or condemnation we might receive because of our choices. It is better to act, if action is undertaken in such a way, than to remain in inaction because we’re unsure of the best or perfect course to take. Our actions, though imperfect, will most likely help someone in some way, while our inaction will at best merely do no harm.

Pray for us, Junipero Serra, as we experience a clash of cultures in the globalization of our times, that we may truly love those who are different from us, that we may see the beauty in their difference, labor for their healing and their good where they are broken and in need, willingly suffer on their behalf, and courageously bear witness to the truth.


(All the pictures are from a trip to the Grand Canyon several summers ago – they were the closest thing I had to California and Mexico pictures. But I thought at least the juniper berries were fitting.)

(One relatively informative site about Serra is the official site for his canonization, although it doesn’t have as many primary source documents as I would like. It does, however, link to a lot of articles that provide a balance for the rather negative picture painted by CNN and the New York Times, several of which are really quite good, and it gives information about why the Church has decided to canonize him and how the process works.)