Monday, April 30, 2012

Spiritual Chicks II: Catherine of Siena

I hadn't really intended to write a series of posts on famous women saints, but the Revised Common Lectionary for the Easter Season has suggested these heroines. Mary Magdalene, of course, is the first Christian evangelist and a pivotal figure in the Resurrection story. Catherine of Siena, whose feast day was April 29th, seemed to be a great example and illustration for the gospel lesson assigned to that day.

The appointed gospel for Easter 4 is John 10:11-18 in which the evangelist quotes Jesus describing himself as the Good Shepherd. I don't know about you, but I'm not really all that familiar with sheep and the practice of shepherding (I'm a city boy). What I do know is that the Pharisees of John's day would probably have taken no small amount of umbrage at this comparison as it both likens Jesus to the Creator God of Psalm 23 (an obvious blasphemy) and suggests that those charged with the spiritual care of  the people were somewhat less good in their shepherding.

The discourse in John 10 comes on the heels of the story of Jesus healing a man born blind. Now, you might think that such a healing would be hailed universally as a pretty good thing to do; nevertheless, the religious leaders in the story--the other shepherds--have to turn it into a political football. They want to quibble about the legality of healing on the sabbath or about the prophetic status of the healer. When I read the story, I just want to grab these Pharisees by the collar, shake them and say,"Who cares about sabbath law?! This man was a blind begger, and now he's a functioing member of society, for cryin' out loud! Don't you understand? Have you no compassion? You're missing the point!!"

Perhaps I should add that I feel the same way when I listen to our political candidates today. Why are we bickering over "big government" versus "small government" ideology when there are human beings in need of physical, spiritual, and economic healing?

What is wanting, I think, is a personal, flesh-and-blood relationship. In verse 14 Jesus, the Good Shepherd, says, "I know my own, and my own know me..." When we have a personal knowledge of Jesus--a real relationship--we can see past our petty selfish interests and find genuine, visionary compassion.

But how would we achieve such a relationship? The best advice I can give is to imagine the single most virtuous person you have ever known.  Maybe that's your mother or grandmother, or, perhaps, a former teacher, neighbor, or co-worker. Someone with true compassion, wisdom, love, and integrity. Visualize yourself having a conversation with that person and telling him or her about what's on your mind. How do your opinions and feelings stack up against that person's moral character? What advice would that person give you? If you can imagine a relationship with someone you've actually known who has embodied compassion, forgiveness, and truthfulness, you're on your way to having a relationship with Jesus.

Catherine of Siena, a fourteenth century nun, was known for her mystical visions of Christ. She imagined a very intimate relationship with Jesus, often imagining him feeding her the eucharist by his own hand. Touched by the compasson of her Good Shepherd, Catherine became something of a shepherd herself. She obediently and willingly exposed herself to vicitms of the plague. She both fed and nursed them, and even dug their graves. Miraculously, she never became infected.

Catherine was also known for her willingness to speak truth to power. As the fourteenth century was filled with petty wars and political intrigue, Catherine risked her own life to broker peace between warring Italian states, and urged Pope Gregory XI to return to Italy. She worked tirelessly for reconcilliation within the church after the election of Pope Urban VI caused schism, and frequently wrote to the pontiff criticisms of his behavior. Throughout her short life she remained a champion of the poor, often feeding the hungry from her own meager rations.

I find myself wishing for a modern-day Catherine--someone who can see beyond the political intrigues and just say, "Hey! We have hungry and sick people here. We need to care for them! Why? Because I know Jesus, and that's what he wants us to do."

So what is Jesus telling you to do? To whom are you a shepherd?

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Mary Magdalene

I really love her story. I find it touching, and mysterious, and so very, very human. The alternate Easter gospel lesson (John 20:1-18) is for me, one of the most beautiful vignettes in all of the Bible, simply because of the recognizable humanity of its central character, Mary Magdalene.

Poor Mary. She's been so maligned over the centuries. In 591, Pope Gregory the Great got it into his head that Mary Magdalene was the same woman as the sinful woman mentioned in Luke 7:36. Ever since, Mary M. has been considered a reformed prostitute--a conclusion which could never have been reached by an honest reading of Luke's text. I wonder if old Gregory, head of a male-dominated institution, just couldn't get over the fact that the first Christian evangelist was actually a woman.

What we do know about this wonderful saint, however, is that Jesus had healed her of "seven demons (See Luke 8:2 and Mark 16:9)." What we don't  know is what on earth "seven demons" actually meant in the world of the text. Was she menatally ill? Depressed? Physically sick? Who knows? All we know is that she was sick, she got well, and, as a result, formed a devoted attachment to Jesus whom she supported from his ministry in Galilee all the way up to his crucifixion and beyond.

The early church had a lot of veneration for Mary. She's mentioned as being close to Jesus in a lot of early Christian gnostic texts, and she's often been the subject of early Christian artists. You can always pick out Mary Magdalene at the foot of the cross or at the empty tomb.  She is color-coded in red gown or veil in order to distinguish her from Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was painted wearing blue. Later, Renaissance artists got more creative and painted her with red hair (In Trimark's 1999 made-for-television film Jesus, Mary Magdalene is portrayed by the brilliant redheaded actress Debra Messing--and depicted as a prostitute.)

I suspect that the term "scarlett woman," referring to a woman of questionable sexual morality, owes a little something to Mary Magdalene. Also, our English word "maudlin," meaning something tearfully sentimental, is a direct referrence to Mary weeping at the tomb of Christ. Whether old Pope Gregory liked it or not, Mary Magdalene has infiltrated herself into our culture.

But it is her involvement in the crucifixion story which gives her her lasting importance. Can you put yourself in her place? She has witnessed the man to whom she is devoted, to whom she owes her life, brutally and unjustly tortured to death. She witnesses this act of barbaric cruelty along with her friend and teacher's mother. What must have been going through her mind? I think the very experience must have been traumatizing. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if, when we meet her in the 20th chapter of John, she is suffering from PTSD.

The inspiration of her life is gone, thrown into a grave before she could even prepare his body. She stumbles through the pre-dawn blackness just so she can be close to his lifeless form--the only thing that's left of this man who has been so significant in her life. To her horror, she sees that the tomb has been opened, and, assuming the worst without even investigating, she runs to tell his friends. I find it significant that she doesn't take the time to look in the tomb herself. Her grief is so overwhelming that she jumps to the not-far-fetched conclusion that this opening is the work of grave robbers.

The men who investigate are no help to her. They enter the tomb, come to their own conclusions, but do nothing  to console this stricken woman. They desert her in her pain, as her grief has become isolating. She is left to weep alone.

Looking into the tomb, Mary sees two angels who ask her why she is crying. She doesn't care that they're angels. She does not wonder at the sight, cast down her eyes at their splendor, or throw herself on her knees. All she cares about is that Jesus is gone.

Turning away in pain, she sees a man she takes to be the gardener. "Sir," she says, "if you have carried him away, tell me where you have laid him, and I will take him away." Picture that for a second: a Jewish woman, ritually defiling herself by carrying the corpse of her dead teacher. It is an image both grotesque and pathetic--and yet it speaks to a love so profound that it transends reason and dignity. To me, it is heartbreaking.

And then the man--really the resurrected Jesus--does a very simple, very loving thing. He addresses her by name. By my count, Mary is one of only four people in the gospels whom Jesus calls by name. Overjoyed, the woman throws herself into his arms, but Jesus tells her not to cling to him. He has not yet ascended to his Father.

This means, of course, that his absence from her has only been postponed. She will lose him again.

Or will she?

He has called her by name. He knows her. Isn't it all of our secret desires to be intimately known--recognized, understood, loved for who we truly are? Can a love like that ever be taken from us? The physical body of Jesus may be taken from her, but the spiritual reality of the ascended Jesus is her permanent reality.

I think Mary's story is the story of us all--grief has robbed her of judgment, peace, and dignity. Love has restored and empowered her. God has seen her, known her, touched her, and become part of her. She is broken and restored, wounded and healed, and, like Jesus, killed and raised.

Monday, April 16, 2012


Christ is risen! Alleluia!

Hello, Dear Friends!

 I'm afraid I'm still unable to post a new essay due to the lack of a functioning computer (I'm borrowing the one I'm using now). I thank you all for your patience. I am happy to report, however, that the church steeple is being repaired and my parish is entering into a relationship with the Interfaith Hospitality Network with the aim of sheltering three temporarily homeless families in our facility. As Saint James reminds us, "Faith, by itself, if it has no works, is dead." (Js. 2:17) We are very excited about this.

If you have any suggestions about a subject on which you'd like me to write, please leave me a comment.

Friday, April 6, 2012

A Blessed Easter!

Dear Friends,
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our crucified and risen Lord Jesus!

I'd hoped to have written a moving essay this week on one of  my favorite biblical characters, Mary Magdalene--the very first Christian evangelist. Alas, the Old Religious Guy's computer crashed and has been sent to computer hospital for repair (I'm borrowing a computer from my secretary for this post). Not only has the computer crashed, but the steeple on my church has also come crashing down as a result of some rotten roof beams and recent 40 mile-per-hour winds. Hey, it never rains but it pours. But I am not discouraged. It's Holy Week, and I rejoice in the sure and certain hope of the resurrection (and the fact that the parish has a good insurance policy!).

I have also changed the settings on this blog so ANYONE (Christians, non-Christians, non-blog members, non-googlers, spammers, hackers, sinners, atheists, or any English-speaking soul around the world) can leave a comment. So please feel free to do so. Let me know what you'd like to read about, and we can have a conversation.

I hope to be back with a new post next week. (Uh-oh. Looks like my secretary wants her computer back!)In the meantime, may you have a blessed and holy Easter.

Christ is risen! Alleluia!