Telling the Stories that Matter: January 29 – Jacques Bunel, Martyr, Priest, Opponent of the Nazis,


We know that Jacques Bunel was born Lucien Bunel but we know remarkably little else about his childhood. We know that he became a Roman Catholic priest and member of the Carmelite order and took the name Jacques de Jesus.Jacques served as a minister of the Faith he confessed and loved by becoming headmaster of a school in Avon, France. This school was known as Petit Collège Sainte-Thérèse de l’ Enfant-Jésus. From this refuge he would engage in the activities that make him laudable but also cost him his life. As the Nazi scourge swept through Europe, Jacques found a way to resist the Nazi empire nonviolently and in a way that would save lives. Jacques began his revolutionary life saving by offering three spots at his school to three Jewish boys whom he helped assume false identities and names. These three boys were named Hans-Helmut Michel, Jacques-France Halpern, and Maurice Schlosser and would be part of the reason that the Nazis would eventually murder Jacques. Had Jacques known that protecting these three boys would cost him his life it seems that he would have done it anyway. Unlike many other clerics and Christians, Jacques was not blind to the atrocities being perpetrated and was willing to risk everything to be on the side of the righteous and loving. Looking at the faces of the children he protected, Jacques knew he was offering refuge to his savior.

Jacques’ sacred work did not end with the three students–like any holy work Jacques’ life saving gathered momentum and soon pushed him onward toward more of the same. He found a way to shelter a boy named Maurice Bas by providing him with a job at the school and a new identity.Maurice Schlosser’s father was running out of places to hide and so Jacques found a home in the village that would serve as a nearby but disconnected refuge for the man. Finally, he dared another sacred moment when he brought Lucien Weil–a famous Jewish botanist–onto the faculty of his school. Having brought at least six people within his protective power, he knew that it was only a time until the Nazis cracked down upon him. That day came on January 15, 1944 when the Gestapo arrested Jacques and the first three boys he protected. Within the next month they had arrested the others that Jacques had worked to hard to protect. All were shipped away to work and death camps. When told he was being arrested for disobeying the law, Jacques responded: “I know only one law: that of the Gospel and Charity.”

The boys and Lucien Weil died in Auschwitz. Jacques was transferred from camp to camp before ending up in Mauthausen in May of 1945. Wherever he went he was known as optimistic and hopeful for liberation. Further, he encouraged his fellow prisoners to share their food and encourage each other. Often, he would go without food so that others might eat. This was near the end of the war and liberation was steadily coming to the camps as the Allied forces beat back the Nazi empire. When Mauthausen was liberated Jacques did a curious thing. He was suffering from tuberculosis and weighed less than 80 pounds when the liberating forces came but he insisted that the others be liberated first. He waited until he knew that all others had gone before him before he consented to be liberated from the hell that the Nazis had engineered for him and other innocents. He died from his illness before he ever made it back to France. His body was shipped back to the school he loved and buried on the grounds of the refuge God had gifted him so that he might try to protect others. Those whom Jacques protected were still murdered by those whom Jacques resisted but he offered love and protection as a testament to the right place of the Church in opposition to great evil. Jacques died a martyr whose death confessed greater allegiance to the Kingdom than to himself.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 24 – Babylas of Antioch, Martyr, Prisoner, Buried in his Chains


Babylas had been a leader of the Church in Antioch. In fact, he was presiding over the Easter vigil and services in the year that the emperor Philip tried to coerce the Church into siding with him. Philip had feigned faith for years and continued to worship the civil religion when he thought he could get away with it. The Church was willing to have him show up but was not willing to make him an object of worship or adoration–when he walked through the Church doors he was nothing more than another sinner seeking grace. In Philip’s case, it’s dubious that he was ever seeking grace and much more likely that he was interested in covering over his political machinations with the clothing of the Church. Babylas was unwilling to allow it.

When Philip came to the vigil, Babylas met him at the door and tried to save him some shame. Philip asked to be let in and Babylas shook his head sadly and said, “You can only enter if you’ll come as a penitent.” Philip was uninterested in taking the position of one seeking forgiveness for and healing from sin. It would lower him to be with the people whom he ruled and would not give him the honor he was so confident he deserved. When Philip insisted that he be let in as an honored guest, Babylas was undeterred from his refusal. The tension in the moment only got worse as Philip waited for Babylas to crack and relent. When Philip indicated his armed guards and attempted to coerce Babylas with worldly power and threat it came as a surprise to Philip–but no surprise to those who knew Babylas–when Babylas closed the doors and barred them to the unrepentant emperor. If Philip would not repent from his sins and come seeking grace then the door was to be barred to him as the Church could not honor or esteem one who was not aware of his own sickness–after all, Jesus came for the sick and not for the well.

Babylas paid a price for this and Philip had him arrested, chained, and thrown in prison. He was left to rot in jail alone and constantly chained. He continued his life of devotion and prayer under chains and persecution because he had been called to it regardless of the cost. Occasionally, he was allowed visitors from the Church and they would secret the Eucharist to him so that he might remain part of the communion he had given himself for but he was never allowed out of his chains. His chains were supposed to serve as an ever present reminder of the Empire’s ability to punish those who resisted it but for Babylas they were a reminder of the weight of sin upon the soul and the need of healing within the Empire. When Decius took power and the Decian persecutions began, Babylas was martyred as he was already within the iron grip of the Empire that wanted to eliminate Christians. He was one of the first and was buried in his chains as he had requested of his Christian brothers and sisters.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 21 – Agnes, Martyr, Virgin, Pure of Heart

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Agnes was a young Christian of maybe one twelve or thirteen years of age when Diocletian’s regime came calling for her life.She was a Roman citizen living in Rome with her wealthy and influential parents when the persecutions began to claim her brothers and sisters in the Faith. As was the case with many wealthy Christian families at the turn from the third to the fourth centuries, Agnes and her family’s peaceful existence was turned on its head as the Empire demanded more and more and accepted less and less resistance. However, Agnes’ noble parents meant that they would simply be extorted and coerced instead of immediately killed–the time of noble death usually came after they had been bled dry of all their resources by a power-hungry ruling class that no longer cared for them. So, Agnes should have been okay–except Agnes was beautiful.

She was so beautiful that the prefect’s son prized her above all the other maidens and went to his father to see what could be done about gaining Agnes as his wife. The prefect was confident that the family would be all too happy to give their daughter over to his family as the bride of their son. So, he sent a courier asking what they thought of the proposal. Amazingly for the day, Agnes’ father wanted to know what Agnes thought about the proposition. She rejected the offer and word was sent back to the prefect as the family waited–holding their breath at the expected retaliation. The prefect was furious that they would dare deny him his wishes and his will. He didn’t understand why her father hadn’t forced her to marry his son and demanded that Agnes be brought before him. When Agnes arrived, she seemed confident in a way that surprised the prefect and so, instead of questioning her–somehow knowing she would continue to refuse even under threat–he ordered her to be killed. “But, prefect,” one of his advisers interjected,“she is a virgin and cannot be executed…it would be unseemly.” Everybody let out their breath feeling that surely Agnes’ life would be spared. They underestimated the cruelty of the Empire.

“We’ll see what we can do about that,” growled the prefect. His armed and trained guards stripped a young teenage girl of her clothing and chained her hands and feet. She was taunted and mocked for her nudity and age and then led naked through the streets of Rome. The guards led the defenseless girl at sword point as if she were a dangerous criminal–she who had refused the prefect’s wishes–and brought her to a brothel to be raped so that she might then be executed. When they tried to seize her they found themselves unable even though she did not resist them. It seemed that their bodies didn’t work right. When she was finally pushed into the brothel, men lined up to rape the young girl but were stricken blind as each of them tried to step forward and perpetrate that unholy act upon her. In fear, they took her from the brothel and tied her to a stake. As they tried to set the young girl on fire the wood refused to catch. In fear and panic, the commander drew his sword and drove it through Agnes’ throat. The naked little girl had brought an Empire to its knees only by refusing to be shaken or coerced. Her grave became a site of adoration and prayer and yet more Christians were gathered in by the empire for martyrdom upon visiting Agnes’ grave.

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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 16 – Raoul Wallenberg, Martyr, Victim of Oppression, Liberator of the Oppressed


Raoul had wealthy parents–though he never met his father who died three months before he was born–and this afforded him many opportunities. For example, he was able to study architecture at the University of Michigan even though it meant quite a bit of travel to get there from Sweden. When he returned to Sweden with his degree in hand he soon found that there was no room for young architects among the Swedes. So, first he took a job in South Africa but eventually ended up with a job in Hungary. His boss–Kálmán Lauer, a Hungarian Jew–utilized him to help handle imports and exports between Sweden and central Europe. It was a great opportunity for a young man and he proved invaluable. Especially invaluable after Nazi coercion brought about laws restricting business done by Jews in Hungary. Lauer trusted Raoul and since Raoul had learned Hungarian he made him his representative and allowed the Christian to take care of business matters where he could not do so as a Jew. Eventually, Raoul was a partner in ownership of the company and was spending more and more of his time in Hungary. Then, one day, an emissary from a refugee organization in the United States contacted him on behalf of president Roosevelt. It seemed that the organization wanted to rescue Hungarian Jews from Nazi oppression. Raoul was just the man for the job.

Sustained by his faith and his commitment to the sacredness of life, he reentered Hungary as a Swedish diplomat. As a diplomat from a different country that Hungary hoped to keep good ties with, he was able to issue protective passes that would label the bearers as individuals preparing to immigrate to Sweden. With these passes, they were relatively untouchable by the Hungarian Nazis. He was even able to lobby with the Nazis to consider these men, women, and children to be Swedes and not required to wear the yellow star that was forced upon the Jews in Hungary. But, this wasn’t enough. He purchased a building and declared it to be exempt from Hungarian law because of his diplomatic immunity. He put large Swedish flags on the front and titled it the “Swedish Research Institute.” But, once inside the doors it was clear that this was a place for Jews to find sanctuary from oppression. But, this still wasn’t enough for Raoul–he felt called to more. The one house became several houses and the several houses became many. Yet, there was still more to be done.

It was clear that death awaited those who could not find some escape or protection and so, again, Raoul further laid himself out for his neighbors. He took to pulling off bigger and bigger stunts to free Jews from the chains of the Nazi regime. He could not free every Jew he met–and this thought tormented him–but he tried. Once, he was atop a train headed for Auschwitz and passing protective passports through the slats to the Jews within the train car. They were unsealed and, therefore, unofficial but Raoul was willing to risk everything to save these lives. He was ordered to stop what he was doing by the guards and they fired a warning shot over his head. He stopped and considered the situation–he might lose his life if he persisted in saving a few more people but he would surely lose more if he denied them their last chance at hope. So, he began passing the passes again and the guards fired at him. Whether they had poor aim or were not trying to hit him, Raoul escaped unscathed and stepped down onto the train platform. As the guards watched, he insisted that the doors be opened and that the inhabitants be checked again for Swedish protective passes. The guards opened the doors and Raoul led the men, women, and children to waiting cars and back to safety.

When the Soviets took Hungary, it seems that Raoul would be free again to live his own life now that the Jews could hopefully be safe again. He had saved tens of thousands of Jews from imperially sanitized death. Yet, he was arrested on January 17, 1945, and charged with being an American spy. Charged with espionage he was hid away in secret prisons. Later, the Soviets first insisted that he had died of a heart attack and later that he had been killed by Zionist Hungarians. Eventually, it was uncovered the the last years of Raoul’s life were filled with torture, interrogation, and eventually his own execution at the hands of the Soviets. He died because he refused to agree with empires that life was a commodity to be traded and manipulated. Because of his faith in a God who taught love for neighbors and enemies, Raoul was appropriately murdered as a revolutionary–after all, nothing is more revolutionary than love in a world that cannot stand the sight or sound of it.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 14 – Nino, Slave, Missionary, Preacher


Nino felt a calling to go to Iberia–in fact, she had had a vision commanding her to take what little she had and travel east to the land that would eventually be known as Georgia. But there was one very significant impediment to Nino’s missionary calling: she was a slave and, according to the Roman powers, her life was not her own to direct. She had quite a pedigree being related to notable and powerful leaders both within the Church and without it, yet she had been taken captive from Armenia and brought to Constantinople as a servant. However, this did not lessen the intensity of her calling. The words of Mary in her vision still rung in Nino’s ears: “Go to Iberia and share the good news that is accomplished in Jesus Christ. I will take every step before you do and be your shield against enemies you’ll know and some you’ll never know. Take a cross and plant it in a land to proclaim salvation and life through my beloved Son and Lord.” So, somehow–some way–Nino risked much to leave and do God’s work in a land where she had no connection.

When she crossed the border into Iberia she began looking for a town–any place where people would congregate–and she settled there. She planted the cross she carried into the ground and began preaching a Gospel that so few had heard in the little town. The fires of conversion caught in the tiny town and soon Nino’s message was spreading into the larger cities and eventually arriving in the capitol. When the queen heard Nino’s message she was transfixed and requested an audience. Nino–the slave–went to speak with the queen and share a faith that depended upon a crucified king. When she arrived, she discovered that the queen was ill and not responding to the cures of the greatest of the royal physicians. Nino offered a humble but earnest prayer on behalf of the queen and she was healed.The two women conversed. We don’t know what was said but the queen was converted and this created a pathway to speak with the king. The king was tolerant of his wife’s conversion but was not personally persuaded that day. It would take another set of circumstances.

The king–like so many other members of the royal class–had a passion for hunting. One day while he was in a nearby forest, he descended further into the forest than he had ever traveled. Soon, he was surrounded by unfamiliar streams and rocks and realized that he wasn’t entirely sure how to find his way back out. He began tracking his path to discover his escape when he was suddenly struck blind. Lost deep in a forest, blinded, and surrounded by animals that would eventually overcome their timidity to inspect and perhaps kill a disabled man, he began to fear for his life. His thoughts flew to Nino and Nino’s God and he prayed a simple prayer: “Jesus, if you are indeed God like the slave says, then save me from my darkness so that I might abandon all other gods and allegiances to follow and worship you.” With the sounding of his “amen” his sight returned and he beat a hasty retreat to his palace. When he arrived, he called for Nino and was converted. Soon thereafter, Christianity became acceptable in Iberia and was no longer punished.

The king and queen were taught by Nino but Christianity was exploding in Iberia and the king recognized that more teachers and ministers were needed to accommodate the needs of the growing community of Jesus’ disciples. Emperor Constantine sent a bishop and ministers to Iberia and a great church was built there. Nino could see that the Church had gained a foothold in Iberia and so she retired to a small hermitage in the mountains where she could again devote herself to prayer and service. When she died, the king built a monastery by her grave and continued to tell the story of the slave who had freed a kingdom.

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Telling the Stories that Matter: January 11 – Brother Lawrence, Lay Brother, Lover of God, Barren Yet Hopeful Tree


Nicholas Herman struggled with poverty. He had trouble finding enough money to afford to live in seventeenth century France. So, he enlisted in the military and went to fight for France in the Thirty Years War. The war had been going on for nearly fifteen years by the time Nicholas joined its ranks and prepared to fight for as long as meals and a small stipend would be provided to him. It wasn’t what he had wanted to do–few at the time would have volunteered to fight a war if there was no economic incentive–but it helped provide for his needs. He was devoted to the Faith he was raised in but found life unsavory and wondered if he might be missing something in his own everyday Christian life. But, while afield with the military, he had a vision that would change his life for the better.

Nicholas was looking about himself in the middle of a very cold winter. A tree barren of all leaves stood resolutely before Nicholas’ gaze and seemed to cry out for notice and consideration. Nicholas’ mind drifted toward the eventual full bloom that awaited the tree come summer and he held the image before him in tension with what he knew awaited the tree standing barren and steadfast among death and destruction. In the tree, Nicholas saw his bleak existence and in its hope he saw his own: a hope that relied upon God’s good grace and steadfast love. Though life was hard and desperate for young Nicholas he was filled with hope for a life consisting in deep love between creator and creation. In a barren tree, God had reached down and touched Nicholas’ heart with a vision that granted hope and strengthened his persistence.

When he was discharged from the military, he went to a Carmelite monastery and petitioned to become a brother.Because of his relative lack of education he could not become a cleric but he persisted and became a lay brother and was assigned to work in the kitchen. His duties included cooking, cleaning, and serving–in other words, he was called to sustain the monks and he did so gladly. He took the name of Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection upon entering the monastery. But, his culinary skills are not what he is best known for. Rather, he is known as a fantastic proponent of the power of love. He insisted that the many works of men and women to explain and grasp the love of God were unnecessary. There was a simple way of life and love that Lawrence called his friends and colleagues to: loving God in the everyday moments.Instead of doing great and big things to “earn” the love of God, Lawrence endeavored simply to appreciate God’s steadfast love in the small things. When he was cooking a meal, he thought of himself as cooking for God and with God. When he scrubbed a pot or a pan, he was doing it for and with God.

Lawrence had an intimate and deeply personal relationship with God and advised all of his friends and colleagues to do the same no matter what else they might be doing with their lives. After all, Lawrence knew well that there was only hope for life in the love that animated and sustained all of creation. Though he was a barren tree hoping desperately for summer, he knew that God was already effecting a summer in his soul and this love informed all of Lawrence’s actions. His many sayings and teachings on God’s love and presence were gathered together by people who appreciated them after his death and bound together in a text known as The Practice of the Presence of GodThere was no other calling for Lawrence than this: to know and be loved by the God who gave hope and faith to God’s much loved creation.

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