Herman could hardly believe what he was hearing and Herman was used to incredible stories. As a younger man in Russia he had experienced a terrible throat infection that was quickly
“They threatened us with torture,” said the escapee, “and then they followed through and started cutting off our fingers and toes one by on.” Herman shook his head sadly. “They insisted that we could go free if we’d only ‘convert,’ but Peter kept insisting that he was already a Christian,” continued the escapee. At the mention of Peter’s name, Herman called up the image of his dear brother in his mind.
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Catherine’s father was the governor of Alexandria so emperor Maxentius felt pressure to accept Catherine into his presence and company. Of course, he wasn’t forced to do anything–he was the emperor–but he knew that it would be wise to pick his battles prudently and spend some time with Catherine if she wanted it. After all, he had a little extra time to entertain guests of influence and importance. Yet, as their meal dragged on, the Maxentius came to regret his agreement more and more. She wouldn’t stop bringing up the cause of those cursed Christians. For some reason, this noble born woman of influential blood seemed to have a soft heart for Christians who he thought of as atheist, cannibalistic, crypt-dwelling scavengers.
Catherine insisted that the ethic that governed all of the Christian activities was one of love and mercy. This grated sharply across Maxentius and his nose wrinkled in disgust at the idea. How could sacrificial love and merciful forgiveness accomplish conquest and change? Surely, this was some idealistic fantasy and nothing more. When Catherine asked again if Maxentius would cease the persecution and execution of Christians, he flatly refused. He turned to his wife to share with her in a conspiratorial life and found tears in her eyes. “What have you done?” he asked Catherine as his rage began to bubble up in him.
“I’ve done nothing, Maxentius,” Catherine responded, “but it seems that my Lord Jesus has found fertile soil in the heart of your wife. Will you not open your heart to him, as well?” In rage, Maxentius cast his cup aside and backed away from the table. If all of this was true then Maxentius was determined to punish Catherine and his own wife if need be. He called for his advisers and ordered them to dispute with her and prove her wrong. Seeing only a woman as their opponent, they confidently started arguing with her but found that she was surprisingly convincing. Within a few hours, they were converting to the faith she had–a faith that love could conquer death and sin and that mercy was more powerful than vengeance–and rejoicing with each other in their new found life.
As his advisers wondered aloud with each other how they could have been so blind, Maxentius fumed and gawked at what was going on. It was as if Catherine–who he now understood to be one of these Christians she defended–was contagious and her story was spreading quickly to those around her. Calling to his guards and hoping they hadn’t been infected yet, he ordered the whole group–Catherine, his wife, and his advisers–arrested. They were thrown into prison and Maxentius hoped that this was enough to stop the spread of Catherine’s faith.When people came to visit her they came away converted,however, and were imprisoned with them. When his cells were filling up he had the group brought before him again and had his own wife and advisers killed first while Catherine watched.Expecting that the crowd would shrink in fear and beg for their lives, he was surprised to see them laughing, clapping, and singing songs. It seemed that everything he did was playing into their hands. He had the rest of them killed–all except for Catherine. Catherine offered prayers of thanksgiving loudly with each cut of the blade and soon found herself condemned to die in a brutal, public and painful way–the breaking wheel–because of her refusal to be broken before Maxentius’ will.
As they drug her to the public place, the crowd fell silent as they looked upon the condemned. She was marked for a gruesome death. The breaking wheel was a torturous way of dying that involved being tied to a wooden wheel with radial spokes. The soldiers would beat the condemned and apply pressure to the bones of the victim until they cracked and popped under the blows from the hammers. The gaps in the spokes allowed the bones to be broken in loud, agonizing, and mutilating fashion. Catherine seemed unfazed as they carried her to the wheel and the guards were frightened by her calm. When they laid her back on the wheel, the wheel broke as it came into contact with her skin. What resolve had remained now dissolved as they thought that surely this one was different from the others they had tortured and killed. The crowd murmured and to stem the possibility of yet another revival, Maxentius ordered her beheaded quickly before her contagion could spread to the crowd and guards.
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As he knelt on the beach by the Black Sea, Clement recalled the time he spent working with Paul. Clement had been born in Philippi and had worked with Paul when Paul came through. In fact, Clement had been one of the people who Paul mentioned in his letter to the Philippians.Perhaps Clement had been one of the young men who told the story of Paul’s conversion in hushed tones of awe. He hadn’t stayed in Philippi for his entire life, of course, but his interaction with Paul and Paul’s interaction with him had left a powerful mark on young Clement. Years later, after Paul had been executed and the Philippian congregation had undergone yet even more persecution,Clement was bishop in Rome and in charge of helping and guiding the house churches and congregations in Rome.
As they tied the rope around his neck, Clement turned to look at the anchor the other end of the rope was affixed to. They were very careful to make sure that Clement would be unable to untie the rope in just a few moments when they expected him to beg and be desperate to escape their intentions. As they checked the knots, Clement remembered how he had stepped into the supervisory role of bishop of Rome and reflected on the letter he had written to the church in Corinth. His letter–now known as 1st Clement–had demonstrated his commitment to taking care of the Church Universal even if it might not fall under his jurisdiction. Years later, when councils were deciding on what letters and books to include in the New Testament, there was a strong contingent of Christians who argued for its inclusion in the canon. Clement had lived into the role he had been called to and become a shepherd of shepherds and a man concerned with a greater flock than simply the ones he came into regular contact with.
As they led him into the boat with the anchor, they shook their heads in mock pity at his impending fate. They rowed away from the shore into the Black Sea but Clement’s mind was far away from the water. Instead, it was on the day he had been arrested for being a Christian by the soldiers directed by Domitian. After a short trial, Clement was exiled and sent away from Rome. He was sent to work in the stone quarries of Chersonesus. When he arrived, he was amazed at the terrible conditions that the workers were in. Among the prisoners and slaves, he began to provide pastoral care to the sick, suffering, grieving, and dying. Through a miracle, he provided water when they were thirsty. He spoke of a Faith that was foreign to so many of them but stripped of their status as citizens and people, they were perhaps especially well prepared to hear the Gospel message of freedom and forgiveness for all people and mercy and grace for even the least of God’s children. A great revival had spread through the camps and soon the Emperor was outraged that the Faith he had tried to eliminate had only been spread by Clement’s exile. Because of this, Clement was ordered to be executed.That’s how he had ended up in the middle of the Black Sea in a boat with soldiers and a rope tied around his neck and attached to an anchor.
They picked up the anchor and dropped it into the water. Clement could not help but follow. He died a martyr.
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Miguel had spent many years among the mining towns of Mexico. Born the son of a miner and his wife in Guadalupe, Zacatecas, he didn’t experience the same kind of affluent lifestyle of some other saints. Rather, Miguel was born on the poverty line and was one of eleven children. As one of the elder children, he helped take care of his siblings. The Mexican people were Miguel’s passion even as a child and he studied so that he might become a priest and serve them. Of particular interest to Miguel were people with similar humble beginnings who struggled to survive in a world that was rarely suited for their success and health.Throughout his life, Miguel was a man of prayer–often saying that the only thing that truly kept him going was prayer. At the age of 20, he began his studies with the Jesuits so that he might offer himself to the clerical life among the people of Mexico.Regrettably, however, he could not stay in Mexico long after this time.
In 1915, the surging tide of opponents to Roman Catholicism in Mexico became too much for Miguel and his superiors. He was sent to Spain to continue his studies so that he might not be arrested or killed by the government that had taken power after a rigged election. After finishing his studies, he was sent as a professor to Nicargagua. His heart yearned to be back in Mexico but it was becoming increasingly less hospitable to priests and he was assigned to Belgium. As his heart pined for the people of Mexico, his health deteriorated and the laws of Mexico became increasingly restrictive. The people who dared to follow after Jesus were forced to meet in secret and avoid detection–again. Priests were being framed for crimes and executed. Others were being arrested and abused. It was a bad time to be Christian in Mexico. It was a worse time to be a minister in a country that now forbade the wearing of clerical vestments or the speaking of clerical thoughts and commentary in public. The goal was the excision of the Roman Catholic church from Mexico and it was very nearly successful. It very well may have been if not for Miguel’s testament to the faith in his dying words.
In Belgium he was ordained to the priestly ministry. His life was even more prayer filled after his ordination and after a short time in Belgium, it became clear that his deteriorating health was partially due to his discomfort with the climate and his homesickness for the people of Mexico. Against the better judgment of some of his superiors, he was sent back to Mexico. Miguel prayerfully thanked those over him and went gladly. His life in Mexico included priestly duties held in secret. He was overjoyed to visit and pray with the people entrusted to him and broke bread in many homes under the cover of darkness and the confident peace of prayer. When the ruler of Mexico–Plutarco Elias Calles–was nearly assassinated, he took a chance to put a stop to Miguel’s work. He insisted that the planning had been the work of Miguel and had him arrested. There was a short–and ludicrous–trial but eventually Plutarco simply decreed that Miguel be executed.The pretext for the execution was an attempted assassination but the real reason was the constantly grasping desire of the State to subvert and excise the Church in Mexico. Miguel was drug from his cell in the early morning and granted one last request: to be allowed to kneel and pray (see above picture).
They took him to the firing range and secured him so that he might present a target for the rifles. They did not secure his arms and so he offered a blessing and prayer over the men holding the rifles that would soon bring his death. He declined the blindfold offered to him,–he was not afraid to look upon the State’s atrocities– grasped his crucifix in one hand and his rosary in the other and offered a loud shout proclaiming his desire to forgive the ones who now held his earthly life in their hands. “Ready,” yelled the commander and Miguel offered a sweet smile as the men raised their rifles.“Aim,” continued the commander and Miguel stretched his arms out as if he were being crucified (see picture). The firing squad directed their rifles at his heart now exposed in his cruciform posture. “Fire!” yelled the commander. The men shot and hit Miguel who crumpled to the ground. He was not dead but he was dying. As the commander approached the bleeding body of Miguel, Miguel cried out:“Viva Cristo Rey!” or “Long live Christ the King!” The commander drew his sidearm and shot Miguel in the head at pointblank range.
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The Venerable Bede wrote about Hilda: “All that knew her called her Mother.” Raised by a foster father of power and influence, Hilda eventually found her way to the monastery as a nun. She had followed in the footsteps of her widowed sister and after the calling that God was placing on her life. She expected the life of a monastic to be a pleasing one that gave her time for prayer, reflection, and intimacy with the God she loved. All of this was while growing up among leaders who did not follow the faith that gripped her. When her father and protector was slain in battle, she planned to go to her sister. While on the way, however, she received a letter from Aidan of Lindisfarne. He asked her to come to Northumbria and help found a monastery there. She went because she heard the voice of God speaking through Aidan’s letter.
When she arrived, she was comforted in her decision by a calm assurance that she was doing what God had called her to do. As nun and monastic in Northumbria, she learned quickly about the life of one devoted to prayer and service. So quickly that soon she was appointed abbess of a local convent. She wore the pectoral cross of the abbess and led her sisters in Christ in lives of prayer to and adoration of God. The sisters loved her and fittingly called her “Mother.” It seems likely that this monastery was a “double monastery” in the Celtic tradition and would have involved both men and women living in separate houses but worshiping together.As most of the Celtic monasteries, it was not uncommon for the abbess of the nuns to lead both houses in worship. After a year or so, she was called away and appointed abbess of the new monastery at Whitby.
The monastery at Whitby was, most definitely, a double monastery and it is known that many of the young men found Hilda to be a spiritual mentor of incredible gifts and leadership. Five of the monks who she was “mother” to became bishops and several became saints. It seems that the monastic life that she had been called to by her Lord and equipped with by Aidan gave her room to be a mother to those who hoped to serve God in prayer and leadership. These young monks and nuns named Hilda as their mother as they went out into the world to lead and shepherd the flocks of the Church. By extension, Hilda became mother and grandmother to many Christians in the West in the 8th century. Years later, after her painful and slow death from disease and exhaustion, Bede would write a history of her for she had become a type of mother to him, as well. She offered hospitality and guidance to any who asked and taught those under her tutelage to do the same. In so doing, she shared the Faith that had gripped her and saved her from a young age while the foster child of a foreign king. Nursing leaders and shepherds was her calling and she did so gladly and ably. Indeed she was truly called “mother.”
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Hugh hadn’t asked for power. He had been content in his positions of leadership within the Carthusian monasteries of England. He had been born in France and raised in a Christian family. He loved to tend to the garden near his monastic cell and to live the life of prayer and reflection that characterized the Carthusian life. As people recognized the natural leader within him, he was appointed prior of a monastery and, eventually, prior of a larger monastery. It became increasingly clear that Hugh had been set apart to lead but Hugh never sought power for the sake of power–he was content to be a monk and follower of Jesus and didn’t feel any need to dictate, command, or control.
Henry II was still doing penance for the murder of Thomas Becket. As part of his penance, he was ordered to establish a Carthusian monastery in England but it had experienced quite a bit of trouble in getting started. The first prior had retired without building the monastery and the second had recently died. Henry knew that he was expected to find a prior who would establish and strengthen the group so he sent a group to go and bring Hugh to England to lead this group of unorganized monks. Hugh and the Carthusians knew that this was a dangerous thing–to go to the country that had murdered Thomas and lead a monastic movement–but it was agreed that Hugh could do great work for the Kingdom so Hugh went willingly with a touch of anxiety.
Hugh found that there had been negligible leadership at Lincoln before he arrived. Not only was there not a monastery building but there were no plans to build one. He organized the monks to work together and campaigned with Henry to provide money to them. He insisted that if Henry truly wanted a Carthusian monastery in Lincoln, then he would have to help support them as they established themselves. Realizing that this was the kind of leader he had recruited, Henry supplied an official charter to the Carthusians and helped to fund their endeavors. Further, he was known to attend their worship services when he was nearby.
Eventually, Hugh was elected bishop of Lincoln by the king and the king’s people. He thanked the king but refused to accept it until he could meet with his colleague and they could vote. Hugh wasn’t keen on allowing a king to command the affairs of the Church. Hugh’s colleagues agreed and Hugh became bishop of Lincoln. As bishop, he was not afraid of the king, however. He remained convinced that the king had no room to command or dictate Church policy and did not hesitate to exact Church discipline upon errant members who were connected to the king.Their relation to the king of England did not absolve them from their sins, he insisted. He resisted the king’s appointments to ecclesial positions and even refused some of the king’s direct orders. All of this was done in a culture that keenly remembered the martyrdom of Thomas Becket. Hugh had no fear, however. Further crusading against the culture, Hugh was known to condemn violence against the Jewish people of Lincoln and England. The Jewish people soon learned that they were safe with Hugh.
By the end of his life, Hugh had made it very clear that he wasn’t the average bishop. He had resisted the commands of a king and a kingdom that had shown no hesitation in murdering people like him before. He stood by his commitments because they were his calling. Indeed, he had not asked for power but when given the yoke of leadership, Hugh did not balk or hesitate. He understood that leadership and power were not things to be sought for selfish gain but things to be used for the furtherance of the Kingdom of God and in service to the will of God.
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