Josephine’s life was indubitably envied by many of her contemporaries and acquaintances. She had had the blessing of a happy childhood with good parents and now was married to an academic and cleric and his income provided more than sufficiently for their needs and many of their desires. They even had four children–three sons and a daughter. Josephine and her husband were active in social causes and vicious opponents of slavery anywhere in the world. In fact, they were known sympathizers with the Union cause of the Civil War in the States. Their activism was a tame sort that would be expected from a socially progressive cleric and his wife and they lived into these roles and expectations with ease. Yet, as life often does, things took a turn and their happy way of life was suddenly and painfully upset: their six-year-old daughter Evangeline died without warning and left the family reeling.
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
Sarah couldn’t believe that her father would agree to that. She may only have been five but she was convinced that her father’s actions were reprehensible. She gathered up a few of her things in secret and set out from the house to find a way out of her native South Carolina. Her father–a proud advocate of slavery–had ordered a slave to be beaten and Sarah had tagged along to see what he meant by that. She couldn’t imagine that her father would actually order some poor person to be abused yet she was surprised to see a slave tied to a post and whipped repeatedly. That’s what had convinced her she had to run away and find a place to live in a state where slavery was not the norm.Of course, five-year-olds–no matter how powerfully angry–cannot get far when they are surrounded by miles and miles of land and so she was caught on her flight and brought back to the plantation to pout silently in her room. This disgust with injustice would characterize the rest of her life.
Sarah was the sixth eldest child of fourteen and was clearly one of the more intelligent children her mother and father had. As she aged, her intellect was further demonstrated in her ability to teach herself and apply her growing wealth of academic resources to the problems at hand. She hoped to follow in the path of her father–a respected lawyer and judge–with one notable exception: she wanted to fight against slavery. As she grew, however, her father began to get nervous about his daughter’s intellect. When Sarah let it slip that she hoped to go to college (like her older brother) to become an attorney, she was forbidden from continuing to study so that she would be unable to attend college. It seems that in order to prevent her from achieving, they crippled her intellectually because she was a woman and her father felt it was inappropriate for a woman to take that kind of position. She resisted this obstacle but it proved to be fairly insurmountable for young Sarah. She did, however teach the slave assigned to her to read–in contradiction of the law–because she recognized the power of education even as she was denied its graces. This event only deepened her commitment to women’s rights and the suffrage of the disenfranchised.
Sarah was the godmother of her own sister–Angelina, the youngest–and helped tutor and care for her as she grew older. Sarah even came back for her many years later after she had already moved to Philadelphia and become active in the abolitionist community and church there. When Angelina was twenty-two (and Sarah was thirty-five), Sarah came back to Charleston to convert her sister to Christianity and bring her north. Angelina would convert but it would be two more years before she moved north to live with her sister. In Philadelphia, the sisters worked for the abolitionist and the feminist cause and Angelina eventually married. In Angelina’s home with her husband Theodore, there was a room for Sarahand the sisters worked together out of the home to edit newspapers and release articles and papers that denounced slavery and repression of women. Though they were rebuked by ministers and eventually given an ultimatum by the Quakers, they refused to accept that slavery was acceptable or women were to be subservient and second-class creatures. They stood upon the same foundation that their opponents stood upon: the Christian faith. By refusing to appeal to another foundation, they refused to concede the holy to those who would abuse it.
When Sarah was seventy-eight years old, the United States ratified the fifteenth amendment to the United State Constitution which stated: “The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” In many ways, this was a victory for Sarah and in her advanced age, she could have sat back and congratulated herself for the rest of her life yet she was not finished. A little while later, she attempted to vote on the basis that the fifteenth amendment should expand voting to all people regardless of sex. She was rejected, however, as it would take the nineteenth amendment in 1920 before women could vote. Sarah spent the rest of her life rehashing old arguments with new circumstances and campaigning for a world she would never witness. She died on December 23 in the year 1873.
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“You see, fellas, those Jews can look healthy, too, thanks to the fine food they eat here in our palaces.” boasted king Nebuchadnezzar. He was answered with the expected nods and grunts of affirmation. Being the king of Babylon meant that people agreed with you and didn’t bother to correct you when you were wrong. The four men he was referring to were Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah and they had secretly requested not to eat the meat offered them since it had been offered to idols first. In an attempt to keep themselves clean, they had risked the wrath of one who is always right–those who are always right must do much to maintain their status–and so they had been allowed to eat only vegetables for ten days and drink only water as a test. Their handler had been hesitant to allow it but was amazed to see them looking healthier every day as they subsisted upon the bare minimum and prayer. Even now, the king could not tell that his prisoners had been refusing his meat.
Hananiah, Mishael, Azariah, and Daniel had been taken captive when the Babylonians overwhelmed and overran Judah. The four men had been of noble birth and blood in Israel and so they made effective bargaining tools for the Babylonians who hoped to purchase Judah’s submission with threats of death and violence against the noble and respected. In essence, they were hostages but they were treated well. They were provided with fine accommodations and were even allowed to worship as they pleased–sometimes. They were even given Babylonian names (you may be more familiar with some of these): Belteshazzar, Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. They were addressed by these names but they remained connected with their heritage. Consequently, three of them (all but Daniel) ran into some trouble when Nebuchadnezzar built a gold statue of himself to be worshiped.
He had decreed that when the people heard a great cacophony of musical instruments, they should immediately cease all other activities and bow before the statue of the king. The people were quick to oblige for they knew the penalty for withholding worship of the king would be severe and immediate. As if to prove them right, Nebuchadnezzar had his workers build a furnace to ruthlessly murder any one who would dare defy his royal order. The king knew that this visible threat would cause the hearts of the hesitant to quake and surrender. Yet, he didn’t anticipate Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. The instruments were played and people shouted. The crowd dropped to the ground in reverence to their manipulative persecutor but the three men stayed on their feet, perhaps mumbling a prayer to the Lord God Almighty whom their true names made reference to. He ordered them brought before him to face his fury. He had the guards drag them near to the furnace as it blazed and crackled. “Bow before me as your god or you will burn this very moment.” The three men shook their heads and insisted that there was only one God worthy of worship. Nebuchadnezzar demanded worship but God was worthy of worship without demands or manipulations. “Make it hotter–seven times hotter!” screamed Nebuchadnezzar and his anxious workers did as he commanded. “Will you not now save yourselves and worship me?” he asked them. They resolutely refused.
So, he threw them into the fiery furnace and as they entered into the flames, bound by ropes, their entrance caused the flames to shoot out and consume the men who threw them in. This was no concern for Nebuchadnezzar who had no care for the men he manipulated. Expecting to harvest the fear he produced in those who watched his heinous actions, Nebuchadnezzar was surprised to see what looked like four men walking together in the flames. “How is this possible? and who is that fourth man?” he questioned his men in surprise. A murmur rose up that the fourth must be one appointed by God to go forth and watch over them in the flames. The ropes had been consumed but they were fine. “Come out, please.” Nebuchadnezzar pleaded with the men. The three men came out at his request and were untouched by the fire or the soot. Nebuchadnezzar didn’t know what to say but eventually decreed that nobody should oppose the God of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah. Perhaps that is the one good thing to say for Nebuchadnezzar in the story: he recognized that there was one greater than himself even if it had no immediate impact on his life except to provide him a way to avoid losing face before the near-martyrs: Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah.
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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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Alice didn’t know what drugs they had given her but she did know that she found it hard to think let alone move. She had a thought tickling the back of her mind but she couldn’t get a grip on it but it was probably for the bet. After all, these people who had drugged her clearly didn’t have good plans for her. Though these were not the men who had tortured her, they were associated with them. As the vibrations of the plane buzzed through her body, her mind drifted back to the day she had first arrived in Argentina.
Alice had been born in eastern France in the year 1937. As a child, she lived through World War II and saw many of its atrocities first hand. She knew the evil that anonymous empires and states could perpetrate if allowed. She was steeped in a culture that knew well the violation of human rights. As a child, she began to feel a tug on her heart to serve her God in a foreign land. She joined a society of French missioners and in 1967 was sent with other nuns and priests to Argentina to minister to the handicapped in Buenos Aires. Yet, this wasn’t the only thing she did when she was there. Soon, she became invested in the political and social problems the country. She began ministering in the shanty-towns, as well. When the country underwent a coup in 1976 and installed Jorge Rafael Videla as president, the stage was set for Alice’s dramatic end.
Following the brutality of the coup, Alice began associating with a group called “Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo” that had one particular interest: revelation of the names of those who had been “disappeared” by the party now in power. They began to make demands that the State own up to its treacheries and admit what it had done. But, fighting for the desaparecidos insured that the State would take notice–they had worked hard to disappear them and didn’t want them brought up again. Eventually, they sent men pretending to be family members of the handicapped to kidnap Alice with some her friends and loved ones. They took the nuns and hid them in government buildings with the intention perpetrating a vast conspiracy to blame their torture and death upon opponents of their newly installed regime. At one point, they had tied Alice to a bed, stripped her, and slashed and stabbed her naked and exposed body. Finally, they decided to make her disappear.
So, they grabbed the drugged nun and opened thebay door of the plane. They were flying over the Argentinian coast and the soldiers were tied to the frame of the plane so that they might not join their victims in their fast approaching death. Alice offered a prayer as the soldiers grabbed her by the shoulders and threw her from the plane. She fell quickly and hit the water hard enough to kill and dismember her instantly. She was made to disappear but her story was again uncovered and told so that people might not forget the difference between the State and the Church–so that people might not forget the disappeared.
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Thomas had only stepped out of the shower–such an innocuous thing–but it proved to be the last action in a chain of actions that resulted in his death. He was in Bangkok and had recently given a talk to an eager and interested audience. Indubitably, most (if not all) of them had read his work and were happy to hear him talk about it. It was the 27th anniversary of his entrance into the monastery–the Abbey of Gethsemani in Trappist, Kentucky–and he must have been aware of it. He reached out to the fan–perhaps to turn it on or off–and when his hand made contact, the poorly grounded fan electrocuted him. He died nearly instantaneously. In the forty years since his death, people–many who never met him and who might not have even been born when he died–have mourned his death and insisted that he died too young and too soon.
Thomas’ story is a long and interesting journey that he recorded in his own spiritual autobiography: The Seven Storey Mountain. He had been born into a family of nominal religious affiliation in France but had been baptized in the Anglican church. His mother was a Quaker by birth but died young and had a limited impact upon him. Her death, however, haunted him for the rest of his life. As a child, he moved very often because of the rootless life of his artist father. For many years, he lived in America with his baby brother and grandparents but during his adolescence he was a student in European boarding schools while his father traveled and attended art shows. He had little to no spiritual involvement at the time and by his own recollection only rarely attended a religious service. At the age of fifteen, Thomas’ father died from a brain tumor and Thomas began to live upon his inheritance as it was watched over by his father’s friend and physician.
Years later, Thomas would begin to feel and resist a calling toward the Church. It seems that synchronicity and serendipity were constantly at play and Thomas became more and more connected with the Church. At first, it was the Byzantine mosaics that brought him into sanctuaries. He wrote:
“I was fascinated by these Byzantine mosaics. I began to haunt the churches where they were to be found…thus without knowing anything about it I became a pilgrim…though not quite for the right reason. And yet it was not for a wrong reason either. For these mosaics and frescoes and all the ancient altars and thrones and sanctuaries were designed and built for the instruction of people who were not capable of immediately understanding anything higher.”
So, Thomas became a pilgrim on a path that unknowingly was drawing him to Jesus and to service. Yet, he struggled deeply with the death of his father and mother and the declining health of his grandparents. He descended into a world sustained by alcohol and sexual conquest. It seems incredibly likely that he fathered a son during one of these trysts. Yet, no matter how much he resisted the call upon his life, he was drifting inexorably toward redemption. Eventually, after many years of fighting and resisting, he took his vows as a Trappist monk and was sent to the Abbey of Gethsemani. There, he was able to live in silence, write, and live a life of contemplation and prayer. His writings have comforted and challenged people ever since. So also have his interests in comparative religion and radical hospitality for others.
It is impossible to share the impact of Thomas Merton upon others without reading some of his writing. Thomas was called to write and lived into the calling with a passion that occasionally got him rebuked by those in power. Any telling of Thomas’ story that did not include some of his writing would be remiss and so I include my own favorite passage:
“In Louisville, at the corner of Fourth and Walnut, in the center of the shopping district, I was suddenly overwhelmed with the realization that I loved all those people, that they were mine and I theirs, that we could not be alien to one another even though we were total strangers. It was like waking form a dream of separateness, of spurious self-isolation in a special world, the world of renunciation and supposed holiness. The whole illusion of a separate holy existence is a dream.”
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