Sunday, September 29, 2019

Mothers and Saints

Today we commemorate Paula and Eustochium, monastics, scholars, and women of influence in the Fifth century CE. Paula was a member of a ranking Roman family, married to a nobleman and the mother of five children with one son and four daughters. Paula was widowed early and while dedicated to her family, became increasingly interested in religion. In 382, she met St. Jerome, a noted theologian, who initiated the Vulgate, or Latin translation of the Bible and also commentaries on the Gospels.

Her daughter, Eustochium, accompanied her mother and Jerome on a pilgrimage to visit holy sites. They eventually settled in Bethlehem where Paula and Jerome founded a double monastery, half for women only, where Paula and her nuns followed a strict regime of asceticism. Paula also devoted herself to in-depth Bible study, often with Jerome, which also included her daughter who later became a scholar in her own right. Paula devoted herself to teaching her nuns and maintaining contact with local clergy and bishops. She was an important member of the Christian community and after her death was given the title of Saint. Eustochium followed her mother’s example, and Jerome credited her with assistance in the project along with influencing his commentaries.  Both women were considered Desert Mothers, Christian women living in the deserts of Israel, Egypt, and Syria, many of them living as hermits.

Paula (347-404 CE) and Eustochium (ca. 368 to ca 419) were examples of families or members of families dedicated to the Christian faith in times when to be affiliated with such a group could be very dangerous. They represented the influence faith in families could have, but they were far from the only examples of families in which sainthood seemed to run.

We immediately think of Mary and Joseph, as well as Mary’s mother and father, Anne and Joachim, along with their cousin and her miraculous son, Elizabeth and John the Baptizer.  There were also James and John, the disciples who were brothers and who were given the title of saint following their deaths.

One of the most extensive families of saints was that of the Turkish woman Macrina (born ca. 270, died ca. 340), also known as Macrina the Elder. Her family consisted of some very prominent religious people. One of her daughters, Emilia, and son-in-law, Basil, were persecuted for their faith and were declared saints. Of Emilia and Basil’s numerous children came Macrina (later called the Younger) who, like her grandmother, became one of the Desert Mothers in the area of Cappadocia, a region of Turkey converted by the apostle Paul. Two of Macrina the Elder’s grandsons were St. Basil the Great and St. Gregory of Nyssa, both listed as Cappadocian Fathers, a group of scholars and theologians who helped define the doctrine of the Trinity and also fought against Arianism, a heresy which denied the divinity of Christ. Another grandson was Peter, bishop of Sebaste.

We also remember Monica of Hippo, whose constant prayers and tears helped to convert her wayward son, Augustine, from a dissolute life to that of one of the great Doctors of the Church.  There is also Benedict of Nursia (c 480 CE) who became the Father of Western Monasticism for his efforts to reorganize and refocus the monastics of his area from dissolute living to the Benedictine order we know today with their vows of poverty, stability, and obedience.  His twin sister, Scholastica, also was a monastic and abbess of a Benedictine monastery in Monte Cassino. The two were very close although they saw each other infrequently.

There are probably tons more family members who followed or served in the church and the people of Christ. These are just a few, but they represent the power of faith in the family and the dedication to God and Christ. Many of them showed a mother being the leader who dedicated herself to the church with her children, male and female, following her into similar paths. In times when women were usually subject to their husbands, fathers, and brothers, women like the Macrinas, Scholastica, Monica, and others, it took strength, conviction, and often a bit of personal wealth, for them to break away from the family and seek a life of faith. It was usually a very different lifestyle from that in their former life.

Women like the Desert Mothers were known for centuries for their wisdom and sometimes rather pithy sayings. They are being sought out again today for those sayings which speak to a world very different from the desert hermitages and communities in which they lived. The voices of women, silenced for many generations, have been resurrected and used for guidance in the way of faith.

Paula and Eustochium are quiet voices seldom heard these days, but in the collect for the day, we are reminded of their example and their contributions to the faith we try to uphold today.

Compel us, O God, to attend diligently to your Word, as your faithful servants Paula and Eustochium, that, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, we may find it profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness; and that thereby we may be made wise unto salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen. *

It makes one proud to be a woman sometimes. It also gives women models in teaching and guiding children in the paths of righteousness.  To many of us, our mothers are saints without official canonization but with attributes of love, faith, and hope that they seek to instill in us.  It’s not a bad vocation.

God bless.

*Lesser Feasts and Fasts (2018).  General Convention, p.500.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 28, 2019.

Tuesday, September 10, 2019

Hurricanes Within and Without

It seems like this week the topic about which a lot of news media attention has been given as been the East Coast hurricane, Dorian, which created havoc in the Bahamas and then moved up the eastern coastline of the United States. Some places that were expecting a lot of wind and rain got wind and rain, but not enough to destroy whole towns and cities with wind damage and flooding while others were not so fortunate. Hurricanes, like many other natural disasters, are nothing to fool around with. They are dangerous, cost lives and property damage, and tempt people to risk their lives unnecessarily by thinking nothing will happen to them and that they will be just fine. Silly people.

I remember hurricanes coming through my hometown at various times in my childhood. The howling of the wind and the force of the rain frightened me because I could feel the gusts of wind pushing on the sides and roof of the house. We never lost a window or even very many shingles, but branches from the trees and the total loss of my favorite tree in the front yard, a lovely weeping willow that was like my kindred spirit, broke my heart, and it still hurts today, over 50 years later. I still remember that after the hurricane passed, there would suddenly be the sound of lots of frogs croaking in a temporary pond in a depression of the landscape at the end of my street. The pond didn’t last very long as it was only there until the water soaked into the ground. With that drying up, the frogs soon quieted down, but I remember hearing that amphibian choir in much the same way Noah might have greeted the rainbow. It was a reassurance.

Hurricanes are real physical dangers but I think they can also be internal ones. I think through my life and consider times when it felt I was in my private and personal hurricane, being drenched by pounding water and blown about like leaves on a tree in a high wind.

Personal hurricanes have blown through my life figuratively and literally, each one making me feel battered and in some cases torn apart limb from limb. For me a lot of it dealt with death of people I loved and lost, incidents of my life that I learned to regret, and sometimes I still feel the battering of the wind that comes from time to time only to fade for a while and then rises again with the next storm in my life.

I think about the times in the Bible where there are real and symbolic winds and rain concerning the relationship between God and the people of the Bible. Job certainly endured a lot of battering when God and the Shai-Tan, the adversary, had a small wager on whether Job would turn on God if all the blessings that Job had received would be taken away suddenly. Job’s crops and herds were decimated,  all of his children died when a house fell on them,  and then Job himself was left sitting on an ash pit, covered in boils, and with friends trying to console him by demanding that he confess what sins he had committed that would make God punish him with so many losses. Of course, Job was innocent of such charges, and eventually God restored not only Job’s life but everything that had been lost. I wonder what Job’s three friends thought of that.

I would truly hate to think that the God I know would punish anyone except me for my sins. I would hate to think that because of the sins of humanity, the Amazon would be burning, the animals would be caught in natural disasters and maimed or killed, and children who were so innocent and pure would be snatched away by a God who felt some parents needed to be punished and punished heavily. It just doesn’t make sense to me, and I really can’t reconcile myself to the fact that I used to believe that that was the cause of disasters in the world. Yes, I learned that in church as a child, and I accepted it. After all, the people who were teaching me were adults, supposedly much wiser than I and who were my teachers and my guides.

Today I can’t do it. I think if a child is ill, it is due to circumstances, not God. If a child is murdered, it is because some person, for whatever reason, wanted to take that child’s life. Their children who die of diseases not because of their sins, but of causes beyond their control or even their knowledge. I think that people sometimes cause their own internal hurricanes, and choose to visit that disaster on innocent people solely for their own reasons. I don’t think God has anything to do with it; I’m pretty sure that’s how it goes. The people choose to do evil things, and none of those thoughts come from God.

I pray for all those who have been and are afflicted with the hurricanes of the past and the present, and even those who will suffer from them in the future. I pray for the people whose lives will be impacted by storms and tempests caused by the climate change that we refuse to acknowledge and try to correct. I pray for all victims of both natural and human-made circumstances. Most of all, I pray that those of us who reside in relative safety have the goodness of heart and the inspiration of God to help in any way we can to make it possible for people who have lost so much to rebuild their lives and those of their neighbors. I pray that we will learn that we have a God who loves us and who doesn’t punish us for the sins of others or punish the innocent for our sins.

We are God’s hands on earth, and if we think we can do nothing, remember the joke about the person who was stuck on a roof after a flood and who prayed for safety and rescue. After several opportunities, such as floating boards and other floating objects but which were rejected because person expected God to take care of him. There was even a man who came by in a motorboat offering help, but again the man on the roof rejected the offer. When God appeared in front of him, and God asked him why he had rejected all the offers of help that God had sent. The man was speechless. He didn’t see that God often uses other things and people to effect a rescue.

Think about it. Where has God sent help to us only to be rejected because we expected some miracle with a notice signed directly by God rather than a mere man in a boat?

Be the boater. Offer help, because that’s what God has in mind, whether or not it’s the kind of rescue someone else expects from God. Love your neighbor enough to help in times of trial. Don’t be a Job’s comforter; grab a boat, and start paddling.

Now where did I put my oars?

God bless.

PS – God bless those who work to keep us informed of the current conditions surrounding such storms as Dorian, and the first responders and organizations who rush in where fools fear to tread, being God’s hands in time of tragedy.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café, Saturday, September 7, 2019.