Telling the Stories that Matter: January 27 – Marcella, Martyr, Widow, Monastic

Marcella was born to wealthy parents of considerable influence in Roman society. Further, she married a man of affluence and influence, as well. She was primed for a life of pleasure, recreation, and relaxation. Yet she had only been married for seven to nine months before her husband died and she became a widow. Of course, she was a widow who lived very comfortably thanks to the wealth she had inherited but she was a widow nonetheless. This event became the catalyst that pushed her onward to consider what was truly valuable in life and what of the Roman culture and life was nothing more than illusion and delusion. She devoted herself to a brand of ascetic joy that involved renouncing herself and her own ambitions in favor of taking care of the poor and hungry. She soon found herself with plenty of work to do and many demands on her time and she couldn’t have been happier.

At one point, a wealthy man became enamored with Marcella. By this time, Marcella had become a leader in the Roman Church and had become an inspiration to other women to live lives of daring faith. He decided he would woo her and make the widow his wife and he assumed it would be an easy thing since she had been widowed and widows were often of little influence and power in Roman society because of their sex. He went to her and he proposed marriage saying that she could inherit all of his fortune when he died if she would only marry him. He was a wealthy political leader and his fortune was considerable but Marcella responded: “If I wished to marry, I should look for a husband, not an inheritance.” He went away without a wife and with a new understanding of Marcella’s devotion to the ministry to which she had been called.

She started a school for women to study scripture and pray. It was rather successful and soon she was spiritual mother to many younger women who sought to follow after the same Christ who had captivated Marcella. Then the Goths came to Rome. The Goths looted and plundered the riches of Rome under the direction of Alaric and soon found their way to Marcella’s school. Likely, they had heard that the old widow was a wealthy woman and that her school was highly respected. To the Goths, this meant she was an ideal target for their terror inducing savagery. They forced their way into the school and demanded all of the valuables that Marcella had. She insisted that she had nothing to offer them as she had spent her life giving herself and her things away to the poor. Her wealth, she declared, was in the stomachs of the poor people in the city. The Goths tortured her to get her to reveal her hidden stores of valuables but were not successful since she had nothing but her clothes and a few meager possessions to offer them. The soldiers seized one of her students–Principia–and informed Marcella that they would rape and kill the woman if Marcella did not give them what they wanted. Marcella dropped to her hands and knees and begged mercy from Alaric insisting that she had nothing to give and begging them to leave the woman alone. Seeing the once wealthy and powerful old woman on her knees in tears with blood streaming down her back begging for the welfare of another, their hearts were turned at last to mercy. They took Marcella and her students to a nearby sanctuary–even carrying the weakened Marcella–so that they might not be victimized any further. Marcella died from her wounds shortly thereafter with her head resting on the lap of Principia whom she had saved.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 17 – Anthony the Great, Monastic, Ascetic, Hermit

Anthony’s parents were something of an exception for Egyptian citizens in the lower regions of the nation–they had money and they owned land. From their affluence, they were able to provide handsomely for son and daughter even though Egypt was under the control and dominion of the Roman empire. But, they died when Anthony was eighteen years old. This left him in charge of his family estate and inheritance. The potential conflict between Anthony’s faith and his family’s wealth did not come to bear until he was in charge of it and charged with providing for his unmarried sister. Anthony felt called to do something ridiculous–to live a revolutionary life of freedom and self-renunciation in the desert–but was anchored to the world that tempted him by his family wealth and obligation to his sister. So, it came as a pleasant surprise when his sister was willing to join an early convent so that Anthony could follow his calling. Anthony sold his family’s possessions and gave the sum total of all his considerable wealth to friends and neighbors.With this radical act, Anthony set out for the desert to live into a calling.

As he journeyed further into the wild, he slowly became more and more detoxified from the temptations and holdings of the world he left behind but it would be silly to believe that he simply walked away and was never again tempted to the affluence and influence of his youth. It was a long process but it came to bear very quickly with a very acute temptation as he journeyed. As he thought back to the city he had left he wondered if it was possible he had made a mistake. With poetic timing, Anthony looked down and saw a silver plate–of much value–holding a mound of silver coins. With these coins, he couldgo back and nearly regain the life he had left behind. He could abandon a hard calling for an easy and comfortable existence. He thought about it. Then, he spoke to the one he knew was behind the temptation: “Give it up, Satan, I won’t be tempted.” As he finished his retort to the temptation, it vanished and faded as Anthony’s hopes would have had he given into temptation. As he traveled further, he found a larger, golden plate with and even larger mound of golden coins upon it. Wordlessly, he built a fire and tossed the gold into it whereupon it promptly vanished. He wasn’t beyond temptation but he was slowly removing the barbs of the Empire from his flesh and gaining true freedom.

Anthony’s life in the desert was the life of a monastic hermit. He secluded himself first in a tomb so that he could best devote himself to a life of prayer and service but no matter how far he got into the wilderness, news traveled back to the cities and increased the amazement of the people for Anthony’s deeds. When he became sick, some Christians went and gathered him up to take him to a monastery and heal him. But when he was better, he left again and this time he found an old Roman fortress and made it his hermitage. The pilgrims who came to see the holy man spoke to him through a small hole in the wall of the fortress and received very few words back from him. He offered his teachings to his disciples but refused to be a spectacle for those who were not connected to him. He accepted gifts of food and drink but mainly subsisted upon the bread he made himself. As any monastic of legendary qualities, he was soon surrounded by disciples and students regardless of whether or not he wanted to be a hermit. He taught but he was devoted first and foremost to a life of self-renunciation and denial that blossomed in prayer and worship.

When he approached the end of his life, he endeavored to finally escape one more bond upon his life and so he made his peace with his disciples. He gave away his only clothing–two cloaks. One cloak was given to Serapion his disciple and the other was given to Athanasius. He gave his abbot’s staff to Macarius and then he laid down prostrate upon the ground and died having made peace and preparation.Anthony had spent a lifetime rejecting the temptations of power and influence so that he might escape the hooks they would place in his soul. He had even gone so far as to ignore a letter from the emperor Constantine before being convinced by his disciples to at least offer a blessing by letter. For Anthony, freedom and peace were found in renunciation–even if it cost him his everything.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 9 – Philip of Moscow, Martyr, Victim of the State, Opponent of the Empire


Feodor Stepanovich Kolychev was born approximately 100 miles from Moscow in the city of Galich. He had the good fortune of being associated with royalty and he joined the royal court of Grand Prince Vasili III. Vasili had a son named Ivan who Feodor developed a friendship with. However, conspiracy and deception were afoot and soon Feodor was forced to flee Moscow because of his benefactor’s involvement in a plot that gathered unwanted attention. So, Feodor fled from Vasili and his friend Ivan. He escaped to the mountains and spent some time consider what had transpired. The wounds perpetrated against him by political powers had driven him to painful reflection and as he stood inside a monastery, he heard the liturgist proclaim: “No man can serve two masters.” At these words, he made the decision to become a monk. So, around the age of thirty, he became a monk and left the political world behind–for a while. He took the monastic name of Philip and devoted himself to prayer and discipline.

At the age of forty-one, Philip became the hegumen of his monastery and lived into the leadership role exceedingly well. It may be that his childhood in the imperial courts had trained him well in leadership and management because soon the monastery had built an impressive array of buildings and improvements and kindled a spiritual revolution in the surrounding countryside. Philip was especially notable because of his personal involvement in the projects. Instead of relaxing and allowing power to soften him, he joined in with the brothers and did the exact same work he asked of the them. Though he was the hegumen, he was unafraid to pick up a shovel. The spiritual revival was largely a work of Philip’s careful work under a new and more demanding monastic rule. Contrary to the movement of so many other powers, Philip had high expectations of people and was confident that they could reach them if given time and assistance. Philip’s leadership at the monastery became legendary and attracted the attention of his boyhood friend Ivan. But this time Ivan was not known as Ivan son of Vasili but as Ivan the Terrible.

Ivan wanted his friend to come to Moscow and fill the position of metropolitan but Philip had one condition: the end of Ivan’s practice of oprichnina. Oprichnina had started when Ivan’s paranoia over revolution had gripped him so terribly that he had fled Moscow with many Church possessions and refused to return. He returned to Moscow on the condition that he be allowed to create a secret police with power to sweep away treason from Russia. The clergy consented and Ivan returned. Soon, the secret police (known as “oprichniki”) were scouring the country atop black horses and wearing black cowls. Their power was, for the most part, unchecked and they did as they pleased. If somebody became an enemy of Ivan then they often died at the hands of one of the oprichniki. The other powerful Russian people–and the Church in Russia–were held at bay by threat of men in black cowls who had a hound and broom imprinted upon the pommel of their saddle to symbolize their task: seeking out and sweeping away all who opposed the centralization of power in the hands of Ivan the Terrible. Philip agreed to become metropolitan only if Ivan would cease and desist from his politically sponsored campaigns of death. Ivan agreed and Philip was made bishop and metropolitan.

Yet, Ivan did not stop his manipulations. At first, he tried to hide the workings of the oprichniki but their murderous works were hard to conceal. Philip found out and so when Ivan came to the cathedral for a Lenten service, he publicly rebuked Ivan for his bloody works and refused to give him his blessing. Ivan was irate but it did not deter him from yet more slaughter and so he authorized the oprichniki to execute a massacre at Novgorod because of fear of treason and defection. Philip denounced Ivan again and it became increasingly apparent that Ivan could not buy the loyalty of the Church through his childhood friend. So, he decided to exercise his power and ruin Philip.

Philip was deposed and Ivan was able to manipulate various clerical professionals into arresting and imprisoning him in a monastery. Stripped of power and reputation, he spent the remainder of his life chained to a wall with less and less food every day. He was abused and punished for refusing to be bought. Then one night, shortly after taking communion, one of Ivan’s most trusted minions–Malyuta Skuratov–crept into his cell and strangled him to death. Though Ivan had modeled his oprichniki after the monastic orders and even hinted at times at wanting to become a monk, it was through the manipulative work of the Empire that he put to death his childhood friend and spiritual superior–Philip of Moscow.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 2 – Seraphim of Sarov, Hermit, Monk, Peaceful Spirit


Seraphim had traveled into the city to attend a very important trial. His presence had not been demanded or even requested but yet he had made the long and arduous journey in spite of his injured back and new physical deformities. Of course, his presence was received joyously because his reputation preceded him. The people were happy to see the Russian holy man who had grown up and experienced notable visions throughout his life. Seraphim had been the son of a loving merchant and wife who had raised him within the faith that would form him for the remainder of his life. He had become a novice monk at a young age and had devoted himself to hermetic and ascetic practices in the outlying regions of the Russian countryside. Yet in spite of his hermetic desires and tendencies, people were constantly traveling to visit and study under Seraphim in his hermitage. He had few opportunities to be alone but he was a spiritual mentor and confessor to many. He was known for one supreme teaching: “Acquire a peaceful spirit, and thousands around you will be saved.” Yet, they were still surprised to see him draw close to the court.

Hunched over his cane, he could barely walk and so the entrance into the courtroom was a long and protracted affair and every eye was upon him–especially the eyes of the defendants. The judge allowed Seraphim to draw close and offer testimony. After all, the defendants were charged with assaulting and beating Seraphim before attempting to rob him. They had crept into the clearing near his hermitage while remaining ignorant of who it was they were planning on taking advantage of. “My joys!” Seraphim exclaimed in greeting to the men as he left his hermitage, “Come now and join with me to eat.” He gave the first surprised thief a kiss on one cheek before being bludgeoned in the back by a second thief. A painful shock coursed through his body as his legs collapsed beneath him. Once he had fallen, they began to savagely beat and abuse the old man. As he moaned in agony with a broken shoulder and bruised bones, they roughly looted his person before going to his hermitage to finish the job. In the hermitage they found a bowl and only one item of any value: an icon of the virgin Mary. In shame, they fled from the place but their flight was observed by a pilgrim who also found Seraphim beaten and slowly dying. They were turned over to the government to be judged but Seraphim insisted on being there–even if it tortured him to travel and be present but he had a compelling reason to be there: to plead for the mercy of the court for his attackers.

History doesn’t record the fate of the men who assaulted and debilitated poor Seraphim but we do know that his earnest plea for mercy was received with surprise but also a delightful sense of expectation–the people knew that mercy and peace were the governing forces in Seraphim’s life. He could not imagine seeking punishment for the men even though they had revealed their most savage aspects to him and the world expected him to seek vengeance. Instead, he returned love and grace for their blind hatred and rage. For the rest of his life he pushed himself to delve deeper into the spiritual life of renunciation and discipline. Even though he had been nearly crippled, he was devoted to physical disciplines that would have been taxing for anybody. The pilgrims never stopped coming and Seraphim never stopped greeting them with a kiss and open arms–this is what he had been called to and this is what he lived out.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 28 – Holy Innocents’ Day


It had been some time since Jesus had been born but when the magi had seen the star in the distance–a star that they and their fellow astrologers knew nothing about–they set out quickly to find what it was a portent of. Surely, a new star must lead them to something special. As they arrived closer and closer to the place where they would find young Jesus, they began to realize that there was a connection between this star and a rumored new “King of the Jews.” When they questioned other travelers, they asked if they had met the new King but none seemed to know of any new royalty and suggested that the magi keep this kind of talk to themselves–Herod would be none too pleased to find out that there might be another vying for his power. Herod was jealous of the throne–jealous enough to kill his own children to protect himself from their possible conspiratorial machinations. Herod had a good thing going and no amount of blood was too much to keep his pseudo-dominance of his little corner of the world. Yet, somehow, the magi ended up in the palace of Herod and asked him if he knew where the new King could be found. He didn’t know but he desperately wanted to and lied to them: “I don’t know where but if you find him, please come and tell me where I too might find him–I want to pay my respects to the new ruler.”

Herod had gained and held his power by being willing to play the game and sell himself to Rome bit by bit. Herod’s father–Antipater–had been poisoned for offering financial support to the treasonous men who murdered Caesar. It is hard to imagine that the son of a collaborator could rise to power but somehow Herod knew the game well enough to manipulate the right people. He swore his allegiance to Rome while using the Roman army to kill his father’s supposed murderer. He would soon rise to power in Judea and be named tetrarch but he first had to consolidate his power by marrying his niece to cement his claim on the throne. This was an easy task for a powerful man like Herod but required that he banish and exile his current wife and three-year-old son. No cost was too high for Herod in his search for power. A little while later, after convincing the Roman leaders that his father’s treachery had been forced, he was threatened by another usurper who he cast as a traitor and enemy of Rome to his powerful Roman friends. With the backing of his Roman friends–bought with his pledge of allegiance to Rome first and foremost–Herod was further cemented as Governor of Judea and he took the title: king Herod the Great. All it cost was his integrity, his allegiance, and selling the Jewish leadership into Roman control.

Herod had lost so much to gain what he wanted that he wasn’t afraid to spill a littlemore blood for power. When the magi gave him the slip, he ordered soldiers and guards at his disposal to go to Bethlehem and murder all boys under the age of two. They were to die so that Herod could insure that no other would grow up to place a claim upon his throne–he didn’t havemuch left to give Rome to insure they would continue to help him and, in fact, they expected him to keep the peace of it would cost him his life. So, the soldiers descended upon the little village and murdered infants and children because of a desperate man’s fear. All in all, somewhere between 20 and 30 human lives were cut short by the obsessive arm of the Empire that hoped to maintain power by dealing in blood and death. Indeed, a prophecy from Jeremiah was fulfilled (perhaps for the second time): “A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more.”Yet, they missed Jesus. Shortly before the soldiers came, an angel had come to Joseph and instructed him to take Jesus and Mary and get out of Israel–they had to go somewhere Herod could not reach–and go to Egypt. They fled the bloody grasp of Herod and would not return until Herod the Great had died and some of the sons he didn’t murder had taken over. So as not to live under Herod’s son Archelaus, they settle in Nazareth in Galilee

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 18 – Sebastian, Martyr, Soldier, Wonder Worker


Sebastian had been raised within the bounds of the Roman empire and knew well the laws and principles that were the foundation of Roman reason and expectation. Further, he had been appointed a captain of the Praetorian Guard under emperors Diocletian and Maximian. However, they had appointed him to this influential and powerful position without the rulers knowing what it was he did on Sundays. Sebastian was a Christian and professed his ultimate allegiance tothe same Lord that Rome had slaughtered to keep the pax romana in Judea. Had they known, they likely would have had him executed if he would not deny his faith. Yet, his faith remained secret even as the power of the Praetorians was weakened by Diocletian and Maximian. Because of this secrecy, Diocletian was unprepared for what came next.

It seems that two Christians had been arrested and tortured when they refused to deny their faith. Mark and Marcellian were close to abandoning their faith in exchange for an end to their pain and an opportunity to be with their family again when they heard whispering outside of their cell. Sebastian comforted them and shared his own faith with them. There in the Roman prison they prayed together and invoked the protection of their crucified Lord. Sebastian encouraged them to be courageous as death approached and they received the holy crown of martyrdom. The next day they surprised Diocletian who expected them to be sufficiently worn down. Diocletian had them tortured again yet their faith would not cave. He called for the family members of the men to visit them and plead with them to make a token sacrifice and renounce their faith. As they visited and pleaded with Mark and Marcellian, Sebastian arrived. At first, the families were worried to see a Praetorian captain near their loved ones yet were comforted by Mark and Marcellian’s joy to see him. Again he comforted Mark and Marcellian and offered prayer with them but he also shared his faith with their non-Christian family. In a few short hours, the families were confessing faith in Jesus and joining with the men in their prayer and worship.

Diocletian was surprised again but this time he thought he had an idea what had happened. Some important families had been having family members become Christians at surprising times andall of the conversions seemed to be connecting around one central figure’s visit: Sebastian. Diocletian called Sebastian to him and gave him no opportunity to regain his status. Instead, he had him taken to a nearby field and tied to a stake. The Roman archers raisedtheir brutal bows and rained death upon him. His flesh was pierced on account of his faith. He was left for dead as his blood was slowly consumed by the soil beneath his naked body. Yet, as the sun fell and the soldiers departed, Sebastian’s heart still beat and he was taken from the place by a Christian widow–Irene of Rome who had been married to Castulus. She took him to her home and nursed him back to health after cleaning his wounds and giving him her bed to sleep in. Amazingly, he recovered and worked a wonder in the house of Irene. A blind woman from the community was skeptical of his faith–perhaps because of his status as a Praetorian–and refused to accept that he was a Christian. He called her to himself and asked, “Do you desire to be with God?” She responded in the affirmative and he made the sign of the cross upon her forehead. Miraculously, she gained her sight the moment after his thumb left her brow.

Yet, one day Diocletian and his entourage were passing through the city and Sebastian saw him coming. He stood upon the step of the home and called out to Diocletian in a loud voice: “See now, Diocletian, the one you condemned to death stands before you. You hope to kill the disciples of Jesus Christ but you only honor those whom you murder and encourage those who escape your desperate grasp.”In a fit of rage, Diocletian ordered his soldiers to beat Sebastian to death and throw his body into a garbage heap after they were sure he was dead. Sebastian died a martyr and evangelist who espoused a faith that was contagious and compelling.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: December 13 – Lucia, Martyr, Unpolluted, Generous

The coins clattered to the stone and Lucia looked around as if she expected somebody to notice. In fact, many people noticed the sound of coins hitting the ground in this poor neighborhood but none of the people were her wealthy soon-to-be husband. She had no trouble giving away the money but knew it must be done in relative secrecy lest her betrothed find out that she was giving away her dowry. Her mother had not approved and had begged her to think of her father–her recently passed father–but could not convince her. At least, not since that night at Agatha’s tomb when she had been healed from her bloody problem. They had waited and prayed all night and Lucia’s mother had finally been healed but Lucia had been the recipient of a vision at the same moment that foretold her soon coming martyrdom. Mom had been happy to be healed and Lucia had not let her know what she had learned. Instead, she proposed that she be allowed to give away her dowry to the poor as an act of alms giving. Of course, mom had resisted but Lucia won out. As she handed over the last of the coins, she breathed a sigh of relief–partly because she had maintained the secrecy and partly because she was glad to finally be rid of the bride money–after all, she had committed herself to a celibate life and had no desire to be a bride in this world.

Yet, as thing so often happen, her betrothed was quick to find out. He was a wealthy man and so he had much influence. Great influence in a city buys many eyes in various places and some of them had told him that they thought they had seen her in the streets giving away a large sum of money. He confronted her and asked to see the dowry set aside for him to gain when he finally married her. She knew she had been caught and so she admitted that she had given it away–knowing well that her martyrdom was likely to 

spring from this moment of opportunity. “If you don’t replace it, I will betray your secret–that you are a Christian–to the magistrate. Maybe then you’ll see some sense once you’ve given up these silly Christian fables.” he yelled. She nodded because she knew he would and because she had come to accept it.

Lucia was arrested at her his insistence and dragged before magistrate Paschasius. This was during the time of the Diocletian persecutions and being Christian was akin to high treason. She was ordered to make a sacrifice upon the Roman altars and she refused. Paschasius was not surprised by any means–it seemed that the Christians were only all too willing to refuse and die if the other option was denying their Faith. “If you do not,” said Paschasius, “then you’ll be killed. Offer sacrifice and live.” Paschasius wasn’t surprised but he was confused–what could be so valuable as to forfeit your life–it didn’t make any sense to him (it never does to the Empire).

“Here is my offering,” Lucia began, “I offer myself to God, let God do with His offering as it pleases Him.” Paschasius sat in shocked silence for a moment. Lucia’s betrothed was dumbstruck by what he might call her lunacy but others might call her courage. Paschasius finally asked her why she would not like to keep her life and be married. He pointed out many of the desirable traits of her betrothed. Lucia let them know that she had committed herself to celibacy and was not interested in marriage.

At this, Paschasius saw an opportunity to wring a denial out of her. “Deny your faith,” he said slickly, “or I’ll turn you over to the brothel to be raped and become a prostitute.” He gloated to himself and smiled what can only be called a smile of self-satisfaction. In this, he had revealed the Empire’s great lust to control and dominate even if by evil means. He fully expected her to give in but this time he truly was surprised.

Lucia said: “No one’s body is polluted so as to endanger the soul if it has not pleased the mind. If you were to lift my hand to your idol and so make me offer against my will, I would still be guiltless in the sight of the true God, who judges according to the will and knows all things. If now, against my will, you cause me to be polluted, a twofold purity will be gloriously imputed to me. You cannot bend my will to your purpose; whatever you do to my body, that cannot happen to me.” Furious, Paschasius ordered her eyes gouged out and then to be martyred. The soldiers followed through and ended her life as a martyr.

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