May 17, 2009

Calendar Stories

Calendar girl me is neglecting some Church Calendar stories that I like to remember each year as the calendar recycles. Stories that are a part of our early church history. Stories that the Catholic Church decided needed to be remembered.

I like the calendar as a tool for remembering stories. I drew up my own calendar as a circle, since we rhythmically revisit the yearly seasons. I’m not Catholic and didn’t grow up knowing anything of church history, and I never read the Bible for myself until I was 19, and that’s when I really fell in love with Jesus, when I seriously wanted to live in relationship with God.

At a desert place in my life, I wanted to strengthen my knowledge of the past. I began with Jewish history, realizing their history is retold rhythmically each calendar year. As my reading took me into early Christian history I started reading stories of people who we remember and they should all have a day on our calendar. I see these stories as a carrying on of the first and second Testaments into a Third Testament.

Why not carry on these stories, “retelling the stories”, “teaching the children”, as scripture so often says. It’s a great way God desires of us, so that we know ourselves, know that our identity is in this larger drama than just me, myself, and I.

So once, when other people were filling out a questionnaire asking who your hero/heroine is with people like Dr Phil or Oprah, I filled the blank in with Catherine of Siena (her calendar day is April 29).

When you read hagiography there’s so much we, looking back on, this is ridiculous and weird. It takes a lot of wading through before you find the real person. But those weird to me things still cause me to stop and ponder, like putting myself in their shoes and try and understand their era.

In Catherine’s era (she died in 1380 at the age of 33) we’d have lived with Europe’s great famine and the plague. An era when most people did not read and write; an era when people desired visions and the stigmata and some lived with self-imposed harsh asceticism; and some women betrothed themselves to Christ.

I wrote more about Catherine last year. The piece of her story that speaks to me is that after three years of secluding herself away, Jesus said, “Enough. The only way you can serve me is in the service of your neighbor!” - and that she did, nursing people, writing books, and writing to kings and popes about reform. Yes, I wrote plural popes, it’s not a typo. Catherine lived during a time called The Great Schism in church history – religion and politics have made history very interesting.

I can’t believe I didn’t post about St George this year (April 23). I usually put my dragon I made on the kitchen table as a visual reminder. It’s a dragon I keep with my Christmas crèche figures (read Revelation 12). Prior to the early 300’s when Constantine made Christianity the empire’s religion, there was a lot of persecution and martyrdoms.

George was a Palestinian soldier who suffered martyrdom in 303 in the persecutions of Diocletian. It’s believed stories of George were brought home to England by the crusaders. It’s a basic tale of good and evil, with many variations – a young knight who rescues a maiden from a flying reptile with bad breath. One tale has him leashing the dragon with the princess’s garter, leading it through town and converting pagans to Christianity; or maybe he just cut off its head. In England, cutting off a dragon’s head, is what’s celebrated. A dragon is often made of bread dough and the children cut off its head.

What intrigues me most about St George is there’s a shrine for him in the Middle East. Jews think it’s the site of Elias. Christians are remembering a soldier championing against the power of evil. Moslems celebrate George as a demigod who endured a series of tortures and call him “Khidir”, the green man. It’s said his shrine has almost more activity than Jerusalem’s Holy Sepulchre – and too, there’s Christians and Moslems praying side-by-side.

And then there’s April 30, another piece of church history. St Pius V, a pope, in 1570 excommunicated Queen Elizabeth I of England. I’m sure you’ve heard of the Council of Trent (not that you know about it)? It straddled several popes lasting 18 years, finalized in 1563. Pius V had the job of instituting it. Its main purpose? Or question actually – what to do with Protestantism? Which really meant NO Protestantism! I’ve written before that Protestantism and Catholicism took over a hundred years of horrible battles, terrible persecutions and imprisonments, before they could live side-by-side, co-existing. It became a Counter-Reformation in the Catholic Church – another interesting era. But you should read about all this.

My brief synopsis? King Henry VIII wanted separation from the Church of Rome. A truly religious desire? No, just political, but the Church ruled then. So Henry and Elizabeth were on the Protestant side, with Bloody Catholic Mary between them. John Knox is another name to know associated with Scotland in this same battle. France and other countries had their battles too. It’s hard for us to imagine living with only one religious option, yet we’d rather other religious viewpoints not exist, right?!

Another person I skipped is Athanasius of Alexander (May 2). He’s noted as a Doctor of the Church (as is two women: Catherine of Sienna and Teresa of Avila), and he’s called the “Father of Orthodoxy”, and died in 373. So Athanasius lived when Christianity was becoming the religion of the Empire, and was a part of the Council of Nicaea, which condemned Arianism in 325 but had to be expanded and affirmed further in 381 at the Council of Constantinople.

Athanasius spent several years with the Desert Father Anthony and wrote his life story, which is still in print today. The majority of his life was spent fighting Arianism and was exiled five times for his defense of Christ’s divinity.

Did you know there’s a James the Less? His story is remembered on May 3. With these calendar days there’s a bit of confusion, just as there is with all the Marys, as to which James this is – whether James the apostle or James the brother of Jesus. Jesus’ brother did not believe in him as the Messiah till after Jesus’ resurrection and Jesus appeared to him. James became the first bishop of Jerusalem.

May 15, recognizes a laborer: St Isadore the Farmer. There’s lots of art work done depicting a piece of his story. He worked for a large landowner from Madrid all his life. Fellow workers complained about his lateness to work some mornings, because he lingered too long praying. He talked with God as he plowed. It’s told that all he did was successful, reminding me of Jacob with Laban. Many art pieces have an angel plowing while he’s off praying.

And then there’s, May 16 – The Feast Day of St Brendan. Brendan lived from 484-577. A stamp was issued in 1994 picturing Brendan in a curragh – a round, hide-covered boat. Stained glass windows have been made of him calling him the Navigator and Voyager. Frederick Buechner tells his story in a book called Brendan. He traveled afar. Ogham, Irish transcriptions written prior to the 800’s, have been found in North America.

Just a religious allegory? We don’t know, but it reminds me of a word I learned: peregrinatio. It's a hard word to define. Our definition of 'pilgrimage' does not really fit this word because since the Middle Ages pilgrimages have plans and destinations and when the goal is accomplished, people return home.

It's been told that three men were in such a skin boat without oars, and when found they said they were "on a pilgrimage, we care not where". It's a celtic word for a journey undertaken for the love of God - surprising and risky and not really having some end or goal in view. But it's not a restless wandering because there seems to be some sense of grounding, and 'at-homeness'.

Brendan's story reminds me that I too have an at-homeness in God, but am I willing to go wherever the Spirit desires me, into the unsafe and unfamiliar - both external and internal journeying?!

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